Essays, Politics-Government, Reviews.

How should we then live?

Book Book Review Part IV, Title How Should We Then Live?, Author Francis A. Schaeffer, Rating 2.5, Part 4 of 4, How should we then live?

How Should We Then Live?

Francis A. Schaeffer

Book Review Part IV

The fourth and final part of this review of Francis Schaeffer’s How Should We Then Live suggests an alternative answer to the question regarding how we should then live, and attempts to answer the original question posed in part I: How did this book influence U.S. Evangelical Christians to become more politically active?

Absolute and exclusive? Les marchands de certitude (note 0)

The freedom to practice religion and the actual practice of religion are vital parts of human society. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks suggests that "We are meaning-seeking animals. And if we can no longer believe in God we will find other things to worship"( Jewish Review of Books, Sum 2014, Nostalgia for the Numinous. Religion can provide meaning for people’s lives, and can provide a stable basis for civilized behavior. But Schaeffer argued that only the worship of the Evangelical Christian God will keep us from our worst. Muslims and Jews, among them Rabbi Sacks, often make a similar argument, that their and only their absolute conception of God stands between humans and bestial behavior.

Protestant Schaeffer, Jewish Sacks and Catholic Terry Eagleton also share a similar view of modern Western intellectual history. Sacks independently provides what serves well as a short summary of Schaeffer’s own comparative analysis of modern philosophies as a series of chapters in the search for a God-substitute:

Sacks plays a familiar historical role here, that of the prophet of doom, a role alive and well today among his fellow religious adherents, including Schaeffer. “Modern society rejects God in all of its forms.” Really? That certainly would be news to the billions around the world today who profess a belief in God. If he means “secular” society, he would have a tough time actually describing the particulars of that “society.” His large-scale straw man argument presumes that people self-identify with academic philosophies or as secular humanists (very few do), that these philosophies are isolated from other influences (none are, including his own), that these philosophies are collectively or individually absurd, that they axiomatically reject God (not remotely true), that God can only be found in his own religious tradition, and so on. It is true that secular humanism or post-modernism represent relative or limited systems of thought. This is hardly grounds to dismiss these approaches to understanding as meaningless or to describe them as godless.


Talmud: Daf Bet of Masechet Brachot. PD-US.


It would appear that the religious traditions of the Abrahamic faiths attempt to place human limits within a postulated absolute frame of reference, then argue about the characterization of the absolute. Witness the Talmud, which records multiple interpretations of passages of the Hebrew Bible, verse by verse. The number of sects within a major religion are as uncountable as the sands, divided even from church to church, mosque to mosque, on differing intrepretations of the absolute. What is absolute about that? Or more to the point, is this not a tacit acknowledgement of human limits in the understanding of God, or the understanding of the meaning of life, or the understanding of what is moral and what is not?

The Bible, Old Testament and New, is full of phrases that acknowledge the inability for humans to understand anything fully. Libraries are full of books that purport to explain who God is, what the Bible or Quran means, what the moral rules of various religions are, and they are decidedly not in agreement, even within particular traditions.

It is hard to see the difference between this approach and the approach of other philosophical lines of thinking (typically summed up by the “absolutists” as post-modernism or secular humanism, or of the devil, and so on) which start from an acknowledgement that human reasoning cannot produce absolute understanding. Such an acknowledgement does not render this kind of thinking as absurd or amoral. It just makes it incomplete.

-Rod Dreher, from Tea Party Literature, the American Conservative, July 10,2014

John Caputo argues in fact that postmodernism is “a restless search for truth,” a truth that is not absolute but is “in constant transit.” He suggests that religious truth is not the truth of rigid creeds but a seeking buoyed by an underlying hope, an interpretation inspired by a more positive consideration of postmodernism, one which does not over-simplistically reduce it to meaningless chaos. So the recognition that we are incapable of absolute understanding does not need to end in hopelessness, but can inform the hope of a continued search for understanding.

Clearly all thought systems have their limits. God and materialism can and do coexist if one does not posit that materialism, for example, is completely self-consistent or that it provides all of the answers to life’s questions or if one does not posit that God can be perfectly understood. Schaeffer, Sacks, Eagleton or C.S. Lewis too often assert an either/or choice without any logical justification for such an assertion, seemingly unable to grasp that not everyone requires an idealized absolute view of the world to make ethical choices, that not everyone succumbs to their strong desire for certainty, and not everyone is all-too-ready to reach for that old logical canard, reductio ad absurdum. Logical absurdities can be generated from any ideology, including the Abrahamic faiths. Just as clearly, as has been argued earlier, those that profess Christianity have shown the same propensity to behave amorally or morally as those who find their understanding of life’s meaning outside of the organized Christian religion.

Acknowledging fuzziness

Consider that in Newton’s time a new and absolute physical model of the Universe was constructed, which postulated that, with a perfect description of initial conditions, this deterministic model would perfectly predict future behavior of matter into infinity. A powerful explanation of the physical world arose from this approach. However, modern physics is no longer so confident, and after finding itself unable to solve many other physical problems with such a model, reluctantly moved to a fuzzier and more relative view of the physical Universe; having shed this overly-idealized approach, physical understanding has been significantly advanced.

The human mind, no matter how highly trained, cannot grasp the universe. We are in the position of a little child, entering a huge library whose walls are covered to the ceiling with books in many different tongues. The child knows that someone must have written those books. It does not know who or how. It does not understand the languages in which they are written. The child notes a definite plan in the arrangement of the books, a mysterious order, which it does not comprehend, but only dimly suspects. That, it seems to me, is the attitude of the human mind, even the greatest and most cultured, toward God. We see a universe marvelously arranged, obeying certain laws, but we understand the laws only dimly. Our limited minds cannot grasp the mysterious force that sways the constellations.
-Albert Einstein, from Glimpses of the Great, George Viereck (pages 372-373)
Similarly, absolute religious models of meaning and morality, like the physical models of Newton’s time, have produced real insights, but have also demonstrably created some difficult inconsistencies of their own. Modern philosophies have struggled in their own way with the obvious limitations of human selfishness, imperfectability, incomplete understanding and with the inevitably blurred comprehension of God, and have more typically worked within the confines of relative limits which are the reality of human existence, which modern philosophers have found are too often inadequately addressed or completely ignored by adherents of monotheistic religion like Schaeffer in their narrow insistence on absolutism and exclusivity.

Are society’s members ‘god-less’ just because they do not adhere to absolutist organized religions, or is a society ‘god-less’ because it insists on separating church and state? Rejecting the absolute nature of organized religion’s conception of God is not the same as rejecting God, and rejecting as a democratic society some of the precepts of its religious members does not constitute ‘godlessness.’

Thankfully, Schaeffer does not represent all Christian adherents: There are many Christians who do not share the narrow views of Schaeffer, and are willing to acknowledge a more uncertain view of theology, and concomitantly a more inclusive concept of godliness which can be shared with those outside of their tradition.

Einstein alternatively suggested that ethical behavior can "be based effectually on sympathy, education, and social ties and needs; no religious basis is necessary. Man would indeed be in a poor way if he had to be restrained by fear of punishment and hope of reward after death."(The Expandable Quotable Einstein)  (page 216)

Does a ‘god-less’ society inevitably lead to the worst human behaviors? As has been suggested in this review, both religious and secular cultures have produced tremendous suffering for too many people, precisely because cultural mores hold limited sway over the root selfishness of people, and can be too easily manipulated by those in power to produce self-serving and often violent outcomes. The worst behaviors just keep on a comin’, in spite of the ideologies and legal structures which seek to govern that behavior.

How should we then live?

Unfortunately, no single worldview provides a complete answer for how to live, or have as yet produced heaven on earth. Perhaps our best course is to recognize the limits of each approach, and to take the very best from alternative worldviews. I would not want to give up the separation of church and state, which is part of a very secular foundation for individual liberties, one that protects from the demonstrably illiberal tendencies of theocratic regimes. I would not want to give up a representative democratic government, with its checks and balances designed to limit the authoritarian tendencies of any governing bodies, or give up the individual rights that such a government affords its citizens. I would not want to give up the best of Christian, Jewish, or Muslim morality, which emphasize love towards one another, charity, de-emphasizes worldly wealth and power, and marks out basic limits of individual freedoms, to be free from the threat of murder and thievery, for example. But it would not be historically or ideologically honest to describe these standards as strictly religious or strictly arising only from adherence to a monotheistic religion, no matter how comforting an absolute system might seem. Each of these modern liberal protections have arisen in the West from non-Christian, Christian, and secular influences, the latter often in reaction to the worst excesses of Christian-influenced governance.

If we resist the temptation to depict our own worldview with an exaggeratedly rosy hue and more carefully take in its weaknesses, and if we make a more concerted effort to consider other worldviews, resisting the impulse to minimize their strengths and over-emphasize their weaknesses, we would likely find that our collective view of the world is not as far apart as men like Francis Schaeffer would have us believe, whatever our religious beliefs.

Had Schaeffer more clearly argued that his Christian worldview was flawed, but not as flawed, as today’s more secular outlook, a widely debated point, the book would have been more open and more relevant. (A strong example of such an argument can be found in Marilynne Robinson’s When I Was a Child I Read Books: Essays.) Rabbi Sacks, for his part, was willing to go further than Schaeffer on this point: Obliquely echoing the best of Jesus, he laudably suggested that

Christopher Tollefsen suggests that

Note that religion may or may not play a role, and it can be socially constructive or destructive. Religious adherents can behave abominably towards others, secularists can be deeply loving towards others, and vice versa. It is a set of choices each human being makes individually, and in this the Existentialists were right. What is truly universal is that all humans have a conscience, and when they act on the dictates of their individual and collective consciences, society is often the better for it.

David Sloan Wilson recently responded to the statement: ‘It does not matter how and why you are good, the point is to be good,’ by suggesting that "If you said there is only one way to be altruistic, you must think this way. If you are like Kant and you think it has to be a categorical imperative; if you are merely nice to others because it feels good, that does not count; or if you are altruistic because you want to go to heaven, that does not count because it is not pure enough — that’s erroneous. . . I say that this is like someone who owes you money offering to pay by cash or check. You might have a mild preference for one payment method but your main concern is to be paid. We need to judge meaning systems in terms of what they do."( A Conversation between Tom Stoppard and David Sloan Wilson

How should we then love?

Schaeffer made many appeals to the simpler times of early Christianity. Andrew Sullivan, in a recent discussion regarding the loving Christianity of Pope Francis, suggested that

Both Schaeffer and Sullivan harkened back to a purer time of Christianity, but they differed in how to get back the best of those times. Schaeffer espoused the way of coercive societal control, and in the deepest irony, promoted authority over liberty in clear contradiction to his own modern theme of liberalism. Sullivan, noting that early Christianity flourished outside of the corridors of power, suggested that Christianity’s greatest promise is reached by eschewing such control.

Schaeffer’s book seems to run counter to Christ’s clear emphasis of Heaven over Earth. It is not hard to imagine Jesus, after having read this book, with a look of disappointment, wondering how the author could have missed by so wide a berth his emphasis to love one another and his de-emphasis of the earthly pursuit of power and wealth.

Garry Wills, in his stimulating books What Jesus Meant and What Paul Meant, rather than argue superior cultural and moral values and espouse political control, found love to be the first and the last Christian ideal, the most important and superseding emphasis of Jesus and his greatest apostle Paul. In the quoted passage at left, Paul also acknowledged the limits of human understanding, and pointed to a full understanding only after this life ends; this seems a far cry from the biblical absolutism promoted by Schaeffer.

How did Schaeffer influence Evangelicals to become more politically active?

He provided them with a motivational purpose and justification for such behavior. The author’s rationale is still echoed in today’s Tea Party jargon: This country was founded on Christian principles – we need to take back our country from the god-less humanists before they destroy it. (note 3)

Yet isn’t it better to openly acknowledge and build on the strengths derived from all of our historical influences, and to stop talking about taking back our country from . . whom? Fellow citizens who don’t share precisely our worldview. This just seems another form of selfishness that minimizes societal focus on providing a better life for all of its’ citizens. If religion is really the force that religious philosophers maintain it is, in an open society it should flourish on its own accord, as opposed to being coercively woven into the legal and institutional fabric of civil society, as Christianity has been for most of its history.

Many Evangelicals are reluctant to acknowledge that Schaeffer’s embracing of the world of right-wing politics brought out in him a rigid and uncompromising crusader, preferring to remember him in his best setting, l’Abri, where he has been described as more open to the diversity of the world, gentler in his methods of persuasion, and inspirational to many he ministered to. But there are some who are more candid, many of whom were inspired at an early age by Francis Schaeffer, but parted ways with him when he became a political activist. Ted Grimsrud, a Mennonite theologian, one such person, in a review of Barry Hankin’s biography of Schaeffer (note 1), suggested that the damage done by Schaeffer may have been larger than his positive legacy:

Schaeffer’s bête noire was the legalization of abortion, and in the last ten years of his life, following the Roe v. Wade decision, he worked hard to motivate Evangelicals to become more politically active to re-criminalize abortion. Some of his admirers have argued that his political activity and perhaps reluctant leadership created something much bigger than he had intended, and argued that he later regretted his large role in encouraging the Evangelicals to march blindly under the banner of the Republican Party, and that he became disgusted at the some of the distortions of Christ’s message that issued forth from the political class which he joined.

Perhaps he was in fact a passionate, naive intellectual who did not sufficiently understand the baseness of political actors or how quickly his sincerely intended message could be distorted for meaner ends. Perhaps he was deeply unaware of the intolerant tone of this book, unaware of his too-easy dismissal of the demonstrable and long-standing historical flaws in Christian culture after a lifetime of immersion in his worldview, and unaware that some of his eager readers were all-too-ready to embrace his sometimes embarrassingly thin apologetics for their own purposes.


A Christian Manifesto, by Francis A. Schaeffer

Yet the idea that he disapproved of the political excess that emanated from his later writings is hard to reconcile with the final book of this series, A Christian Manifesto, an even more intolerant and openly political call to action, including violent action, up to and including the overthrow of government in the service of Christianizing U.S. society. A Christian Manifesto was markedly more extreme than How Shall We Then Live, sure that political means were the only way to re-assert Christian control of a nation that was in the thrall of a secular humanism which was was destroying U.S. society and this earth, sure that only Christian principles could save it, and suggested that things had reached such a dire point that even violence could be justified to reach such ends. It espoused power to truth. (note 2)

End of part 4 of 4.

(Part 1 of this review can be found here, part 2 here, and part 3 here.)



0. Les marchands de certitude, merchants of certainty, is a common French characterization of those who peddle absolute certainty, whether religious or otherwise. From my brother Craig.

Francis Schaeffer & the Shaping of Evangelical America, by Barry Hankins

1. Francis Schaeffer and the Shaping of Evangelical America, by Barry Hankins. The purpose of this review is examine Schaeffer’s historical and cultural arguments in favor of Evangelical political activism which purportedly influenced the Christian Right in the 1970’s up to today. Hankins’ book addressed and added considerably to some of the same territory as this review, and of course, much more. In Chapters 5 and 7 he provided more in-depth description and commentary on aspects of How Shall We Then Live, particularly the theological, philosophical and cultural analyses produced by Schaeffer left largely untreated in this review.

2. In How Should We Then Live, Schaeffer simply ignored the Christian Wars of Religion fought after the start of the Reformation, a startling omission that allowed him to disregard some of the worst violence perpetrated in the name of Christianity (as detailed in part I of this review). Much more startling in A Christian Manifesto, even appalling, is that Schaeffer actually portrayed these wars as permissible examples of violence in the name of Protestantism, as justifiable forms of revolutionary behavior needed to change society from a distorted Christianity that was Roman Catholicism into the heaven on earth that is Protestantism! (Ironically, his arguments justifying violence came not so much from interpretations of Biblical passages, but from secular Enlightenment thinkers, particularly John Locke.) It appears that he abandoned his argument that his Christian worldview does not support an ethic of strength over weakness.

The author’s idea that Christians in the United States continue to be the powerless victims of an authoritarian state was introduced in How Should We Then Live and amplified in the Manifesto: It is as if Schaeffer had not left behind the defensive crouch induced by early Roman persecution, as if he was blind to the truth of Christianity’s own 1700 year old political dominance in Rome, Russia, Europe, the Byzantine Empire, and yes, in the modern liberal democracy of the United States, where Christians still make up the majority of the population and wield tremendous power politically.

There is much contention as to whether Schaeffer in his Manifesto went as far as to expouse outright use of force, as a last resort, to overthrow an authoritarian government. Ryan Lizza, in the New Yorker, suggested that he had; many in the Evangelical community were sure that Lizza was just another liberal journalist who was overstating his case for a secular agenda, including Barry Hankins, Schaeffer’s biographer. Hankins was not incorrect in pointing out some moderating factors: Schaeffer was vocal about his opposition of the creation of a theocracy, he suggested that civil disobedience was a right but should be non-violent, etc.

What Hankins and other defender’s of Schaeffer seemed unwilling to call out, and Lizza did not miss, is that Schaeffer repeatedly drew parallels between today’s Evangelicals in the U.S. and the situation of the American Revolutionaries, and then suggested that at some point American revolutionaries no longer had a remedy to misplaced authority but to revolt, to use force. Schaeffer also listed four things that John Locke suggested were natural rights, the four things that Schaeffer said still applied to today’s American citizens, and particularly to Evangelicals who needed to be more politically active: the last of the four was the right to revolt. It is true that Schaeffer could not bring himself directly to say that force was ultimately justifiable in his righteous cause, but the logical inference is unmistakably there. More clearly, Schaeffer explicitly justified earlier Protestant violence, as mentioned above, using the civil disobedience argument and insisting again on the ultimate right to violent revolt.

Was America Founded As A Christian Nation? A Historical Introduction, by John Fea

3. Is America a Christian Nation? Barry Hankins in his above-mentioned biography of Schaeffer also addressed some of the historical distortions which I did not discuss directly, especially around the role of Christian thought and culture in the construction of the new nation of the United States of America. For Schaeffer, the U.S. was shaped predominantly by its Christian heritage; the consensus of American historians, Christian and otherwise, is that the United States was shaped by a mix of Christian and secular influences, probably more secular than Christian. A useful albeit curious source on this subject is Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?, written by John Fea, a history professor at the Evangelical college Messiah, who gives a fairly even-handed explication of both religious and secular influences, while refusing to draw any conclusions.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Solve the puzzle to post a comment *