I decided to take a book report I wrote last school year and post it as a blog article. Odd, I know, but I recently re-read it and thought it was good enough to make the blog (with some edits). Here it is, summarizing Francis Schaeffer’s How Should We Then Live? and detailing what I learned from reading it.
Worldview is fundamental to existence. So fundamental, in fact, that every single human being has one, whether they realize it or not. A worldview is a set of assumptions, presuppositions if you will, which are the lenses through which we see the world and interpret it and our place therein. In his book How Should We Then Live?, Francis Schaeffer traces the history of Western culture all the way from the Roman Empire to the present day, detailing the underlying worldview of the people in each of the great epochs of Christianity’s existence. The goal of such an endeavor is to prove that only the true Christian faith, that which is based upon what God has revealed to us in His Word, can make sense of the world consistently. All other worldviews inevitably fall short.
Schaeffer begins by tracing the history of three main lines of inquiry: philosophy, science, and religion, specifically, the Western manifestations of these three, and how Christianity is what ties them all together into a coherent whole. Beginning in pre-Christian Rome and ending in the present-day, he demonstrates how we as a human race have not at all progressed, but rather have come full circle.
In Rome and ancient Greece, people were cruel and decadent. The Roman Empire especially and the people within it only wanted panem et circenses, “bread and circuses.” As long as the people were kept well-fed and entertained, they were appeased. That entertainment, however, included all manner of sex and violence. Such social evils as abortion, infanticide (via exposure or some other means), homosexuality, bestiality, drunkenness, and drugs were quite common, and all of these and more were the marks of a completely depraved society that had no consistent moral standards, nor a sufficient base to give life meaning.
Christianity stood in brilliant contrast to the amorality of the Roman Empire. Christians often saved exposed children and adopted them as their own. Christians, though the primary sport at places like the Colosseum, nonetheless preached the gospel to their very last breaths, establishing their continuing witness through their martyrdom. Christianity provided the necessary preconditions for intelligibility, so that all of life finally made sense.
Schaeffer moves from Rome to the Middle Ages, where he notes that what used to be pure, biblical religion was slowly tainted by pagan philosophy, especially through Aquinas and his reliance on Aristotelian ideals. Whereas the focus of the Christian mind and spirit was once upon God and His Word, with the acknowledgment that our sinful minds and spirits cannot do anything to save themselves, in the Middle Ages, emphasis came to be placed more and more on human merit and freedom, to the point that Christ’s sacrifice, rather than being a gift accepted by faith, became a gift to be merited by our own works (effectively making Christ’s merits of no merit at all). Humanism had found its roots. And through the Renaissance, humanism became the cardinal doctrine of men like Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael. This worldview found much of its expression in the arts and sciences.
The Reformation wanted to remove the paganry from the church by bringing the Bible back to the center of the Christian experience. The Scriptures had for too long been inaccessible to the lay reader, their truths only mediated to the common people via priests and cardinals and popes. With the work of men like John Wycliffe and William Tyndale, English Christians could finally read the Scriptures in their own tongue. Martin Luther translated the New Testament into German for the first time. And the Reformers, men like Calvin, Zwingli, Luther, and Knox, preached from the text of Scripture in their churches, recovering the biblical gospel that had been obscured during the Middle Ages. Man was removed from center stage; God was put back in the spotlight.
With a return to a biblical worldview came immense good. The philosophical foundations were laid in the Reformation for modern science, for art, for government (indeed, the American experiment would not have happened had the Reformation not occurred), and for life in general. Man, as God’s image, was imbued with a certain dignity, a dignity not found in humanism, which would continue to exist after the Reformation as Western culture began its decline once again. Morality was put in its proper place; rule of law became common sense.
Alas, it was not to last. Philosophers and theologians and scientists have, to this present day, continued to liberalize and back away from the biblical worldview toward one that, in the end, is utterly meaningless and without dignity. The great social experiments, like Stalin’s Russia, Hitler’s Germany, Mussolini’s Italy, completely and utterly demonstrated the emptiness of the humanistic worldview. Meaning cannot be found in one’s self; you cannot look to the particulars to discover the universal. And as our culture sinks further and further into depravity, with its drug culture, abortion on demand, illicit sexualism, etc., we must answer the question, How Should We Then Live?
What I Learned
This book taught me much. To list all of the things that I learned would take up quite some space. First, I had never heard of Boccaccio, or Duchamp, or Burckhardt. I had only in passing heard names like Barth, Tillich, Ambrose, and Kierkegaard. To be able to understand a bit better what all these people contributed to Western thought and culture certainly aided in my comprehension of just how far we’ve come. By weaving example after example throughout this book, Schaeffer expertly engages the reader with history, teaching lessons along the way and always bringing his readers back to the Christian worldview and its wholeness.
Next, I learned that humanism in its early forms was not nearly as destructive as modern humanism, but it laid the groundwork for modern humanism to rise up and rear its ugly head in these latter days. I had not known about Aquinas’ emphasis on human reason contra divine revelation, that he thought we could reach a true understanding of ourselves via reason (with some help from Scripture). His version of the autonomy of man’s mind in contradistinction to his fallen nature is certainly prevalent even today in many circles, where we are told can trust our minds to function logically and rationally and can therefore make the conscious decision to repent and believe, even though the Scriptures speak of the noetic effects of the Fall, that not only was our spirit killed by sin, but the whole of the image of God was marred, including our minds and reasoning capabilities.
Lastly, I had never quite fully realized just how much the arts reflect the philosophical persuasions of the age. This is where How Should We Then Live? really shines. From the two-dimensional, symbol-laden art of the Byzantines, to the realism of the Renaissance and Reformation, to the Impressionism of the modern era, to finally the disjointedness and randomness of the post-modern era, music and painting and sculpture show the flow of culture and philosophy as one reigning worldview gives way to another. Example after example is given in the book to demonstrate this fact. I have left this book with a deeper appreciation for just how much art can tell me about the artists and their worldview.
“As a man thinketh, so is he,” says the Proverb. How Should We Then Live? details indeed the way man has thought, and therefore what he has become. The future of Western society looks grim, and toward the end of the book, pessimism begins to set in. Schaeffer concludes that the only way out is if we as Christians begin to live consistently with our own presuppositions, to speak truth to those who need to hear it. We have the true worldview; therefore, let us make good use of it.