Book Review: Escape from Reason – Francis Schaeffer

schaefferThe caption for this book is “a penetrating analysis of the trends in modern thought.” The goal of the book is to provide an brief overview and outline of the past 800 years of theological/philosophical progress – especially as relates to the development of the modern theological climate (though note that the book was published in 1968) – with the intention of giving the reader an understanding of the current landscape so that they may better communicate the truths of Christianity into the generation in which they’re living. It is an attempt to help a generation of Christians “to speak meaningfully to its own age.”

To start off, the book is very short, and at 94 pages can be read fairly easily without having to dedicate too much time to it. The world which Schaeffer sets up is one in which there is a dualism between man and truth, between the rational and the irrational. The eternal questions of how one may find meaning in the world, how far reason can take the mind, and how we can know anything are the things we have to figure out.

In this attempt create an outline of modern thought Schaeffer begins with Aquinas and attributes the first creation of this duality to him, he then progresses up through Kant, Hegel, Kierkegaard and Barth while taking detours to discuss the trends as they flow through art, literature and film. The over-riding principle that Schaeffer sees as developing is one of an increasing separation of man from rational truth, ending in a complete wall between man and his ability to form a unified field of knowledge; as Schaeffer notes, “Modern man has given up his hope of unity and lives in despair – the despair of no longer thinking that what has always been the aspiration of men is at all possible.” It is the loss of a unified answer for knowledge and life which tries to jump the gap from rationalism to meaning through any way possible, whether a ‘leap of faith’, drugs, nonrational experiences and feelings.

On the whole Schaeffer does have a good point to make. In the most general of ways his outline of philosophical history speaks truth, but it needs to be taken wit a spoonful of salt. His general mood is correct, and his feelings towards various thought trends are also correct, such as the trends towards “faith in faith” and using the terms God and Jesus more for their connotations than for their orthodox meanings. The gap which he describes is one which needs to be addressed and he is right in his position that in order to effectively communicate to a generation one must understand their thought patterns (this is most relevantly posited in the gulf between parents and their children during his time-frame, where the children are being educated in increasingly skeptical worldviews where truth is being forced to give way to relativism and subjectivism). Finally, he’s got some interesting insights into art and literature.

The issue with the text is that while he gets various things correct and the overall message of the book is acceptable, his scholarship is dubious at best. The caption designates it as “a penetrating analysis of the trends in modern thought” when in fact it feels as though Schaeffer simply took what he knew to be true about the theological landscape and patched together a sketchy outline of philosophic history based on the vague impressions he had of each theologian. “Penetrating” is hardly the word I would use – it’s more like a cursory outline that one might formulate after reading a philosophy textbook.

That said, the book is not without merit. If you take everything at face value you’ll come away misinformed, but at least you’ll come away motivated to engage the thought-trends where they are (since I’d say that even if his history is skewed he’s got a good hold on the present), hopefully you’ll even come away motivated to read the source-texts of the authors which Schaeffer condemns as creating the current theological climate – you’ll probably be happy to find that many of them have very valuable things to contribute to the conversation, some are even an orthodox, and few are the heralds of irrationality and mysticism that Schaeffer makes them out to be.

Memorable Quotes:

-“These things are never merely theoretical, because men act the way they think.”

-“The early scientists also shared the outlook of Christianity in believing that there is a reasonable God, who had created a reasonable universe, and thus man, by use of his reason, could find out the universe’s form.”

-“Today there are almost no philosophies in the classic sense of philosophy – there are anti-philosophies.”

-“Once the historic Christian answer is put away, all we can do is to leap upstairs and say that against all reason God is good.”

Specific Criticisms

1) Early on in the book Schaeffer makes Aquinas the foundational starting point for the progress of rationalistic philosophy. He states that “In Aquinas’s view the will of man was fallen, but the intellect was not… Mans’ intellect became autonomous… philosophy also became free, and was separated from revelation.” A few things here, on is that Aquinas had an exceptionally high view of revelation; to assert that man can know things through reason is not to make reason autonomous. Furthermore, if man’s will is fallen then one can’t help but have the intellect affected.

Aquinas did not ‘set philosophy free from revelation’ as Schaeffer posits – indeed, philosophy had been free for quite some time, I’d give it at least 1500 years or more. Afterall, if anything, Aquinas served simply to bring the thought of Aristotle back into play. Note that Aristotle was a philosopher over a thousand years before Aquinas and he had no place for revelation in his philosophy. As Chesterton would argue “St. Thomas did not reconcile Christ to Aristotle; he reconciled Aristotle to Christ” and acknowledge that there is a root in part to wisdom in the real world rather than solely intangible truths of Platonism. What he would point out is that if the unbeliever is to be proved wrong, it should be done so on their own grounds (as proving them wrong on somebody else’s ground does no good). At most in Aquinas we have a subordinate autonomy, which is hardly equal to Schaeffer’s weighty claim – if he allowed his philosophy to step away from his theology it was grounded in an absolute certainty of the truth of God, that since God is true the facts of necessity can lead to nothing other than Him; and yet he still held the place of revelation in the knowledge of God (for otherwise the uneducated masses would have no hope of coming to know God).

2) Another point of poor scholarship on Schaeffer’s part is in his view of thought pre-Aquinas. He tries to point out that the heavenly things were all important for those early thinkers, but then creates a dichotomy in saying that nature was just a backdrop for them. If we’re talking about the superstitious folk here the case is nothing of the sort, nature wasn’t just a backdrop, nature was what was heavenly – filled to the brim with spirits and gods and nymphs. If we’re talking about the philosophers we can look to Maurice de Wulf (author of ‘A History of Medieval Philosophy’) noting that “The earliest Grecian philosophers confined themselves to the study of the external world.” Again, Schaeffer simply seems to have not done his research, but is rather relying on the feel he gets from a few pictures to make a generalization about over a thousand years worth of philosophy.

The closest he might have to a valid point here would be that much western thought in Europe pre-Aquinas was dominated by Plato, which gives priority to the realm of ideas (what Schaeffer might interpret as ‘heavenly things) over the physical world (which Plato asserts as being modelled on the world of thought).

3) Schaeffer states that modern man has given up hope for a unified system of knowledge. While it is true that modern [secular] man has acknowledge the lack of a unified system, they haven’t given up hope; a point which can be made by referencing Hawkings ‘A Brief History of Time’. Science is still searching for this unified system, specifically in reconciling the general theory of relativity with quantum mechanics (that is, the way normal to really big things operate in terms of gravity versus the way very tiny things operate).

4) Schaeffer posits that, in regards to the middle class who are generally unaffected by philosophical and theological shifts “they still think in the right way – to them truth is truth, right is right – but they no longer know why.” I’d simply disagree. If anybody knows why truth is truth it is the down-to-earth middle class, those unaffected by the rampant skepticism of the past century. They know why truth is truth, the fact that they can’t express it in philosophical form isn’t an argument against them (and to use it as such is to near begging the question).

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