26 September 2016

"Reflections on Francis Schaeffer"

Long, long about--sometime around 1970, I suspect--someone (I wish I could remember who) gave me the first of what became known as Francis Schaeffer's philosophical trilogy: "Escape From Reason." I devoured it and Schaeffer's next two books, "The God Who Is There" and "Death in the City" in short order. These books were for me, like many growing up in the Evangelical tradition in the 1960s, an initial introduction to philosophy and cultural criticism. Schaeffer as a gateway drug, so to speak.

As an undergraduate philosophy major I didn't read Schaeffer but I remembered his works with affection through my college and law school days. I had come to understand, at least in a general sense, that Schaeffer was a popularizer and not an original philosopher. Until reading "Reflections of Francis Schaeffer" (Ron Ruegsegger, ed., 1986), however, I didn't appreciate the degree to which Schaeffer's summaries of the thinking of the notable philosophers in the Western tradition were either incomplete or simply wrong. Yet like me, the authors of the chapters in "Reflections" generally display a genuine affection for Schaeffer the man and his almost single-handed efforts to introduce American Evangelicals to the contours of Western thought. Generally a decade or so older than me, many of them had spent some time at L'Abri, Schaeffer's mountain-side study center in the Swiss Alps. Many then, and others later (as they pursued their studies) loved the man but couldn't help but react critically to his superficial analyses.

If there was a second consistent theme to the criticism theme of Schaeffer it is one I've noted elsewhere: a devotion to "worldview thinking." Indeed, the two criticisms--superficiality and worldview thinking regularly go together. (See my earlier posts here, here, and here for some elaborations of my concerns about worldview.) Identifying (or simply positing) an earlier philosopher's or artist's worldview saved Schaeffer the trouble of actually and seriously interacting with the other's work at a fundamental level.

But now I'd like to add another concern about "worldview:" identity politics. If anything has to come to characterize contemporary political thought it's commitment to "identity." Whether one "identifies" as a sex other than one's natural endowment or simply as a racial or economic category, identity politics comes to little more than assertions of the putative collective "rights" to expression as one identifies oneself. There is no "human nature;" instead, what counts is one's socially constructed identity. In yet other words, the concept of self-identity has succumbed to ideology. What had been external--an untethered form of political Manichaeism--has now been turned inward. 

Although formally resistant to social constructivism, conservative Christians oriented to worldview thinking can find themselves making the same sorts of arguments as the purveyors of identity politics. If, as Schaeffer regularly argued, one's actions followed directly from one's worldview, and one's worldview was simply a given, then it's only a short step to equating worldview and identity. It is a step, of course--Schaeffer believed that one could critique another's worldview by the use of reason--but the high-level, abstract sort of reasoning in which Schaeffer engaged wasn't likely to dent someone's preferred identity. And even more regrettably, many of today's popularizers of Christian worldview thinking don't much try. One simply "has" a worldview and, if it's Christian it's right and if it's non-Christian it's wrong, and that's about it. In short, conservative Christians have succumbed to ideology

One of James Hurley's contribution of "Reflections" is true of all of us: "Great strengths can also be great liabilities." We should not only honestly acknowledge Schaeffer's shortcoming, however, we should try to do better. "Reflections" does a fair job of the former but we must take on ourselves the responsibility of doing the latter.

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