Wednesday, November 18, 2020

The God Who is There: in discourse with Schaeffer

It’s been a while for this old blog. Well, I recently read the late 1960s book (with a long lifespan and strong influence) by Francis Schaeffer, The God Who is There.

I often write reviews for the books I read, but with this one I started writing… and writing. A few thousand words later, it was too long for my usual posting venue, Goodreads. So here we are.

More than just a personal explosion of thoughts, I hope its a contemplatively critical point of view and that there’s some interesting stuff in here.


It was the 1960s, and the west was in a massive state of upheaval – everything in philosophy, art, theology and popular culture was under question and the ground was shifting. Postmodernity was coming down the line and Francis Schaeffer took it on himself to oppose the zeitgeist.

Intelligent Christian young people throughout the 60s, 70s and 80s were entering academic institutions and finding themselves in a very different world to that offered by the shelter of the presuppositions they enjoyed within the walls of the church.

Into that space of discombobulation came Schaeffer’s The God Who is There.

The book gave the gift of an intelligent response. That’s a very reassuring thing when facing a tide of confusing information that seems to be undermining your personal status quo. It provides a kind of raft, or even maybe an island, in the flux and flow. Schaeffer’s intelligence and strength of conviction provided a place of that kind, a position to inhabit. As a figurehead, people could even trust that Schaeffer was taking care of matters on the cut and thrust academic frontlines, and rest in that thought. No matter your belief system, it’s always nice to know you have intellectuals in your corner.

A key premise of the book is that culture and society is changed by a chain of influences that begins with philosophy, then into art, then into pop culture, then into society in general, then into theology, then (I suppose) into the church. The basis of this premise is never argued in the book – it is simply put forward as the way things are. In this schema, philosophers hold great power as progenitors and creators of cultural paradigms, rather than as (say) prophets of a new zeitgeist… i.e. they are creators more than they are observers or seers. They create the zeitgeist – they don’t just describe it.

A second key premise is the existence of something called the ‘line of despair’. I’m not sure of the methodology by which this is defined – again, it is simply put forward as the way things are. But as I understand it, it is some kind of tipping point whereby the paradigm shifts from the safety of a presupposition of a core dualistic rationality into some other space. This other space is adamantly described by Schaeffer as ‘despair’.

These two presuppositions combine in the opening thesis of the book: philosophers (via a chain of influences) have taken our entire culture and society below the line of despair. And the person most responsible for this shift (thanks to the chain of influences) – Schaeffer’s bogeyman – is 19th century Christian philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard. He wreaked this havoc, says Schaeffer, via his concept of the ‘leap of faith’.


A defence of Kierkegaard, if I may…

Kierkegaard, by his own design, attempted to play a role similar to a biblical prophet within his culture, and like any prophetic figure (or would-be prophetic figure) it’s important to take the original context into account. Kierkegaard was speaking into a 19th century Danish context. His ideas aren’t limited to that context, but that context forms part of the picture of what he’s driving at. His particular bugbear was with the way ‘Christianity’ had become a cultural phenomenon of mere middle-class respectability. For him this wasn’t true Christianity.

Because he was seeking to combat this respectability, he emphasised aspects of faith that undermined that citadel. One move was to highlight the ‘absurdity’ of Christianity, including such propositions as the idea that a 1st century AD Palestinian Jewish carpenter was God incarnate. This was not to make a mockery of Christianity but to point out, through this kind of example, that true Christianity requires a risk, and rationality will not mitigate this risk. That risk is a leap, and true Christianity requires that the individual take this leap. The core propositions of Christianity can not be taken merely as raw rational ‘facts’ or comfortable middle-class truisms. True Christianity is an existential proposition requiring something of the individual that goes beyond rationality. Rationality isn’t extinct – it just isn’t sufficient for making the final all-in move.

That’s how I understand Kierkegaard’s leap of faith, as it pertains to epistemology in the context of Christianity. His writing is very open to interpretation and, not only that, but he wrote under various pseudonyms that allowed him to try out various philosophical points of view. (It’s important to read the writings he penned under his own name to get at what he saw as the ‘truest things’ he held to.)

Another angle on the leap of faith that I love is this one from Clare Carlisle’s book, Kierkegaard: A guide for the perplexed:

‘Kierkegaard … uses both characters and metaphors to show the movements of existence. One of his most famous metaphors is the “leap of faith” (actually Kierkegaard does not use this phrase, but he uses the metaphor of a dancer’s leap to illustrate the movement of religious faith). This metaphor expresses the way in which faith is a “double movement”: it goes up towards God, but it also comes down to earth, and this shows that faith is not a withdrawal from the world but a way of living in the world through a relationship to God.’

To explore the metaphor further, it’s a grounded leap. Not a vague floaty leap or a plunge off a cliff. That being the case, Schaeffer needn’t have been so worried about Kierkegaard per se. Nonetheless, Schaeffer’s on-going issue is the move beyond rationality, and he continues to hold Kierkegaard in the dock.

Two things about this: Firstly, the real problem may be not what Kierkegaard said but what others did with elements of Kierkegaardian thought. If later Existentialists declared the end of rationality, with a move into an entirely arbitrary and chaotic universe, that is no fault of Kierkegaard’s. It’s problematic to hold a thinker responsible for what subsequent thinkers and interpreters do with his or her work. (As a side note, by the way, if we are to play that game (and I’m going to play a variation of it later on), I think it could be argued that a figure like Kierkegaard the philosopher and would-be ‘reformer’ could not have existed without Schaeffer’s beloved Reformation.)

Secondly, it’s beyond me to understand how Schaeffer can angle towards the idea that Christianity and life can be contained within rationality. The above example to wit. How one could arrive at the carpenter-man-incarnate-God phenomenon via purely rational means defies my imagination. And to claim to be doing so, it seems to me, is to risk making an idol of rationality.

In the first part of the second half of the book, Schaeffer makes a series of ‘biblical’ and/or ‘historical’ Christian propositions that he believes will provide meaning to individuals and culture and bring them back up above the line of despair. I have no particular quibble with these for what they are – it’s a solid summary of post-Reformation orthodoxy (which he calls ‘historic Christianity’), and I think the first of these (from which the other propositions flow) – that a transcendent-personal God is  – is not beyond the realms of reason. But even though that might be a reasonable proposition, it still requires the individual to take an existential leap of faith, or undergo some kind of felt personal experience that compels that leap, for their life to interweave with that proposition. 

Other propositions – such as the Bible being the word of God – also require a leap. There are reasons why this proposition about the Bible might be so, but none of them allow the proposition to be established as definitive fact. Highly compelling for some perhaps, but definitive, no. The proposition requires a response, and that response is the leap of faith.

Schaeffer very briefly admits later in the book that rationality by itself isn’t enough, and opposes ‘naked rationalism’, but still maintains his very high ideals of rationality (including a fierce position against mysticism). He reinforces the idea that everything should be grounded in a sense of the rational. Perhaps, if he had allowed himself to, he may have had more recourse to the metaphor of Kierkegaard’s grounded leap than he realised. In other writings, he admits that there is useful stuff in Kierkegaard, though he never sways from his line of despair construct and Kierkegaard’s role in it.

Those are my thoughts on Schaeffer’s relationship with Kierkegaard. But The God Who is There is much more than a riposte against Kierkegaard. It is first and foremost a work of apologetics, and I wonder about the legacy of that.

An apologetic discourse

Schaeffer, to his credit, was a man who engaged – he got into conversation with all kinds of people (artists, philosophers, plumbers), and he had a profound effect on thousands of young people via intelligent discourse. But, if his writings are anything to go by, the dynamic of these conversations assumed a form in which he appropriates the high ground and speaks downwards – didactic conversation with the ulterior motive of seeking to overcome the object’s point of view. This approach is borne out by the stories recorded in the book about times when he trumped other people’s philosophies and beliefs. That, you might say, is exactly what ‘evangelism’ is (no matter what system of belief you’re pushing), but whatever else it might be, it’s not a conversation with an equal power dynamic. Humility is at risk.

The book follows the model of classical evangelical discourse: generate a keen awareness of need (step one) and then provide a solution (step two). It is, therefore, largely a guide on how to mine out the tensions and inconsistencies in a non-Christian’s belief system so as to destabilise them in preparation for hearing the gospel. You’re meant to push them intellectually to the ‘logical conclusion’ of their beliefs (as if each belief system has just one logical conclusion) so as to demonstrate the unsustainable nature of that belief and the inconsistencies required of an individual to inhabit that space. (By ‘logical conclusion’, I think you could just as easily say ‘extreme version’ of the particular belief.) This leads to a useful ontological (existential) destabilisation in the apologetic object (i.e. the person you are preaching to). That’s a high stakes game – you’re playing with the individual’s mental and emotional well-being. But it’s justified, in Schaeffer’s theology and by his own claim, if you are doing it in a bid to rescue the individual from eternal hellfire. Talk about taking philosophies to their logical conclusion.

All this, I suppose, with the supposition by Schaeffer that there are no tensions in Christian belief (back to Kierkegaard for the contra) and no ‘logical conclusion(s)’ of some aspects of Christian belief(s), in all their wide varieties, that might lead somewhere detrimental (arguably the one about hellfire mentioned above, for example). Reformed theology certainly isn’t immune from this. I’m not sure who the arbiter of definitive ‘logical conclusion’ is, but apparently singular logical conclusions exist out there. Possible outcomes? Sure. One inevitable outcome? Not so sure… spoken (like many other things in this review, I acknowledge) like a true postmodern.

It’s all done with the best intentions, of course, because the evangeliser wants to give the gift of peace, meaning and reconciliation with self and God. I don’t say that cynically – that is genuinely the heartfelt desire. But the methodology, and presuppositions of the methodology, is I think problematic (to put it mildly).

The triggering of an existential crisis as an apologetical strategy. It’s a different mode, but the same basic premise as the hellfire preaching of previous eras. So for all Schaeffer’s talk about rationality and the use of a type of rationality in his argument, in the end he’s relying on emotion – this enhanced state of discombobulation – to spark a movement in his apologetical object (i.e. the individual being evangelised)… to prompt an: existential leap. That leap is how the individual escapes the crisis situation they find themselves in. It’s a human mechanism that we all employ no matter what our underlying belief systems are, to gain a tenable space in which to live.

An impact on culture

The cultural legacy of this book is also something worth considering. It’s clear that Schaeffer saw the 1960s cultural climate as being inherently dangerous and that figures within it were deliberate in their dangerous initiatives. The artist Marcel Duchamp ‘will seek to destroy you from within yourself’ (p35). Regarding the viewing of a particular art exhibition in Amsterdam in 1965, ‘though the girl could not perhaps analyse what she saw, yet surely she would be more ready to say “Yes” [to sex, I assume, from the context] by the time she came out’ (p36). In the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper album ‘the words, the syntax, the music, and the unity of the way the individual songs are arranged, form a unity of infiltration’ (p43).  

While Schaeffer himself did engage (in a perhaps tightly controlled, risk adverse and ulterior way), and even urged evangelicals to properly understand the culture and not to adopt a ‘citadel mentality’, the unfortunate legacy (following here his own chain of influence model) of his painting of the evils, darkness and danger of contemporary culture has, in practice, a fear-based outcome that fed or feeds into the culture wars, and perhaps the church becoming ever-more disconnected from the rest of society.

When Schaeffer encourages us to understand the culture, it’s not so we can participate in it, or even mine it for gold. It’s so we can learn how best to criticise it, repudiate it and fight against it.

The book was wildly popular and the backcover blurb of the edition I have (printed sometime after Schaeffer’s death in 1984) begins with: ‘The landmark book that changed us all’. By ‘us all’, I assume they mean evangelicals. A highly defensive, ‘them and us’ point of view within the reformed/evangelical/fundamentalist milieu that sees danger everywhere instead of gifts is, I think, part of the legacy of the book. We saw it recently when Christians freaked out about Marxism and critical theory around the BLM movement.

The sad thing about this is that it deprives Christianity of the potential benefits of new insights that might be gained from genuine conversation and cuts it off from the culture that surrounds it. As controversial as it may sound, Marxism and critical theory, for example, have some excellent insights to share – especially with regard to power dynamics and oppression, which can dovetail with the teachings of Jesus. But – equally as sad – a shutting down of genuine conversation also deprives other modes of thinking from gaining insights from Christianity.

On a personal note, in attacking Kierkegaard and also mysticism (as he does later on), Schaeffer is attacking two threads that have helped bring my own faith to life in the postmodern context that we inhabit. Contrary to his argument, I believe that they have helped keep me from despair (or companioned me when I’ve experienced despair), rather than pushed me below the line.

I struggle with the innate pessimism in Schaeffer’s readings of creative fields. This is also true of Schaeffer’s friend H R Rookmaaker, author of the ominously titled, Modern Art and the Death of a Culture. Their interpretations often lack generosity, love and grace, and therefore also lack an essence of redemption. For example, in Schaeffer’s reading of Dali (pp66-68), instead of celebrating an awakening in Dali’s work to a sacramental presence in the world, he simply provides theological criticism and put-down. And in his reading of Henry Miller  (pp74-77), he fails to celebrate Miller’s discovery of a divine creative source in the world, instead denying Miller the use of biblical language to describe his discoveries. It seems stingy.

Fortunately, today there are Christian thinkers who do genuinely engage. They don’t throw their hands up in horror at postmodernity and wish for a different world – they understand that postmodernity is simply where we’re at. That’s how N T Wright can express the idea (while still remaining within the scope of orthodoxy) that every generation must work out what Christianity means in their generation. It’s also how James K A Smith can write a book called Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism and glean some wonderful gifts from postmodern theorists, or Daniel Siedell can write a book called God in the Gallery and make something marvellous, immersed as he is in the art world.

Then again, we are called to be a counter culture. We must critique the culture. Christianity was a counter culture at its inception and has often functioned that way – a different way of being, a prophetic imagination (a la Walter Brueggemann). There is emptiness and despair present in the world (and I noticed it more so while reading a particular graphic novel alongside Schaeffer). But all is not meaningless chaos (inside and outside the church) – love abides, there is a Presence… on such things Christianity insists, despite whatever the odds may be. The possibility of hope in every context. So Schaeffer gives us that challenge, and the gift of critical thinking, and it is well-heeded so long as we come at it with openness, humility and love. And in that context, sometimes the leap of faith to which Schaeffer seemed so adverse will be necessary. It just is.

As serendipity would have it, at the same time as I was reading Schaeffer, I was also reading Henri Nouwen’s The Wounded Healer. Published three years apart, both books try to diagnose what ails (late 1960s / early 1970s) ‘contemporary man’. Nouwen notices that contemporary man is seeking transcendence in one of two primary ways: mysticism and revolution.

Unlike Schaeffer, who doesn’t address revolution and treats mysticism as anathema, Nouwen enters into those two fields, sits with them in a humble, empathetic and non-alarmist way and proposes that, rather than shooting them down, mysticism and revolution can flourish and come together in rather a marvellous way in Christianity. Jürgen Moltmann performs a similar move in his writings.

This is the creative approach – employing a prophetic imagination, which does not clang shut and bolt the doors, but opens up. Rather than setting up a separate world, Nouwen enters into the heart of the world and does his work there – an incarnational move.

Schaeffer and me

I think this long review was a conversation I needed to have with a powerful force from my formative years. Although this was the first time I’ve read this book for myself, Schaeffer’s thinking was a powerful influence in the evangelical and Reformed worlds I was educated in. In a way, this has been the 15-year-old in me, making the response I wish I could have made back then. 

As for my university years in the late 1990s, although my background of having a Reformed Christian high school education helped provide me with the gift of critical thinking, I’m glad I didn’t read Schaeffer at that time. Instead, I developed a strategy of noticing gold in critical theory, postmodernism, modern poetry and contemporary art. I’m glad I didn’t set up a defensive position against it, as I might have done under the influence of Schaeffer. Even when I read Rookmaaker’s Modern Art and the Death of a Culture something didn’t sit right. With Schaeffer lurking in the philosophical background of my upbringing and education, it’s no wonder, by the way, that I felt a thrilling sense of being a bit of a rebel when I first became intrigued by Kierkegaard.

Barth, Tillich, Bultmann, Bonhoeffer, Rahner, Macquarrie – all important names in 20th century theology, and all get a bad rap from Schaeffer for their ‘dangerous’, or at least misguided, theologies. It’s clear that, in the great tradition of Reformed theology, Schaeffer feels he has a handle on definitive Truth, that his theology is the one that got it right. But many of these names are ones that I’m interested in, with compelling ideas to contribute. (By chance, Tillich is next on my reading list.) 

My approach is to have orthodoxy as an anchor point and then approach these thinkers with genuine curiosity and generosity. Despite all my critiques, it’s something I’ve tried to do with this very book (for example, I really liked Schaeffer’s sections on ‘truth and spirituality’ and ‘the God behind truth’ in which he agrees, without noticing it, with aspects of Kierkegaard and Karl Barth, and gives a passing nod to the study of semantics (semiotics) – a favourite pastime of postmodernism). Glean the gifts and feel free to disagree, while keeping an open hand. It’s less defensive, and it’s creatively interesting and generative. It’s the same with art and culture.

Fifty years after Schaeffer wrote his book, and the tide of the 1960s cultural shift has passed through, this is what’s become of us. This, I think, is what the Christian in postmodernity does. Where, for example, Schaeffer posits a battle between theism and pantheism, a third term has emerged: panentheism (i.e. the idea that the presence of God is around and through everything, but not that everything is God). Where Schaeffer posits a battle between the rational and irrational, the third term transrational has emerged, suggesting that there a mode of knowing beyond the rational and irrational duality. I’m not sure that Schaeffer would have liked it, and there are still those of his ilk fighting the battle, but I think we are basically ok. Christianity – working out faith in context with trembling – is always going to be some kind of negotiation, if not struggle, but we’ve not yet sunken into despair. The Spirit is still at work.