History, Politics-Government, Religion.

The ghost of Schaeffer past

Book Briefly Noted, Title How Now Shall We Live?, Author Charles Colson, Rating 2.0, The ghost of Schaeffer past

By the time Charles Colson got out of prison in the mid-70's, having been convicted for acts of political skullduggery during the Watergate scandal, he had converted to Evangelical Christianity. How Now Shall We Live was his best-seller, an homage to Francis Schaeffer's view of Western history. Schaeffer was a presuppositional millennialist who in the 1970's left the quiet life of a Christian intellectual to help lead the evangelicals to the heights of political activism we see today in the U.S.

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Presuppositionalists like Colson and Schaeffer can be recognized by their severe overuse of the term Weltanschauung, or worldview, by way of promoting Evangelical Christian ideology as an all-encompassing definition of said worldview, and by their promotion of the idea that the end times are near. (note 1) Because Christians must compete with other worldviews, compete by God they will, particularly in the political arena, and who better to do that than the ever-pugnacious Colson. The idea that one’s worldview shapes everything one does seems rather obvious, but in its application, Colson et. al. over-intellectualizes it, and leave out a good deal of human emotion. Where is fear, greed, lust, tribalism in this worldview? Pushed to the sidelines of sinful behavior, for which Christian ideology has no responsibility. This is no minor point: Colson’s / Schaeffer’s account of Western civilization promotes the idea that ideological Christianity was responsible for the good, and any ideology but Christianity the bad, with no accounting for the vicissitudes of other less cerebral human motives.


The original.

The book is an updated version of Schaeffer’s earlier opus, How Should We Then Live, which was in part an intellectual effort to demonstrate the historical superiority of Christian culture and thereby explicitly compete with the secular academy. Schaeffer’s book had some interest, as he constructed a summary of intellectual history that was pithy and easily followed, although distorted and incomplete, especially missing the more embarrassing aspects of Christian history that would have weakened his main arguments. (See The Good Old Days of Christendom for an extended discussion on this topic.)

Colson’s book came across to me as warmed-over Schaeffer, updated in the simplest way: twenty-four years of contemporary history added to a book that covers two millenia of Christian cultural accomplishment. My interest in the book was rapidly reduced to surveying his arguments around science and in particular Creationism, which can be found in abundance. They turned out to be the usual half-arguments, prominently featuring the cherry-picking of the professional anti-evolutionist Phillip Johnson. I followed the arguments and their sources, and they unfortunately were mostly narrowly construed straw men designed to poke holes in the theory of evolution, and added little of interest to the sometimes lively discussion around religion and science. They mostly turn on blithe dismissal, mis-applications of science, or misunderstanding of what science is and isn’t, common among those who claim Biblical inerrancy. (See the superb site Talk Origins for a measured scientific response to the various arguments found in this book on science and Creationism. See Evolution + Intelligent Design = 42 for more discussion about Creationist arguments.)

After reading the book, I learned that Charles Colson’s writing contribution to this book was minimal, if not absent entirely. Nancy Pearcey, his co-author, wrote the majority of the book, and continues today as an established ‘expert’ on Schaeffer’s Christian worldview. Most of the rest, if not all, were written by his long-time ghost-writer, Harold Fickett. Pearcey stopped collaborating with Colson after the publishing of this book. Playing hard and fast with the facts seems to have been a life-long temptation for Charles Colson.

 

Notes

1. The end of the world. Presuppositional millenialists believe among other things that the end of the world is nigh, based on their interpretation of what they consider to be prophetic passages in the Bible. They join a long line of such Christian prognosticators, from the 1st century A.D. to today. The Interactive Bible website provides one such non-exhaustive list with 242 historical Christian predictions of the end of the world, that end coming as early as the 1st century A.D., and the latest coming well in the future.

4 thoughts on “The ghost of Schaeffer past

  1. Hi Thomas,

    I may have some questions regarding your thorough response (thank you), but am a bit tired.

    Quickly though, if you’re willing, may I ask your view of science and religion? I’m a Christian and at one point converted my origins view to evolution but am having my doubts. Those Intelligent Design guys make some compelling points, plus I hate the idea of molecules to man evolution. God used death and destruction from the start, and then called it “very good” in Genesis? I don’t like it. But if the evidence is there… problem is I’m now doubting it’s there. Not enough time, Cambrian explosion… If you gave me a nutshell and some authors you respect, I’d much appreciate it. Fine if you’re too busy.

    Thanks much.

    • Religion is a set of beliefs based on faith. The existence of God cannot be proven, but most humans believe that some form of God exists. One can postulate a religious set of tenets that are absolute in nature, but there is no way to prove one way or the other whether they are true on false.

      Science is an evidence-based methodology which allows for the construction of predictive models for various material and physical phenomena. It is never complete, and therefore in flux; scientific models can and do change as new evidence becomes available, when changes to current models are proposed and tested, and so on. If you are looking for absolute certainty, you will not find it in science. If you are looking for the best available explanation of some phenomena, particularly an explanation that will provide predictions about that phenomena, you will find it in science. Many of the explanations of science are very precise, and highly reliable, some are much less so. Science is at its heart tentative and at the same time progressive. Explanations in science tend to become more accurate as evidence accumulates, models are modified to provide a better fit to observations, and so on.

      Evolutionary biology is a scientific model that attempts to explain how already living organisms change over time, to the point of forming other species. Evolution is NOT an explanation of the origin of life, which has been for some period of time been segregated as a scientific subject now typically called abiogenesis, that is the study of how life may have originated spontaneously from non-living matter.

      Evolution is by no means complete, and it is not completely consistent, both things of which are true of all scientific models, including gravity, quantum electrodynamics, and so on. But it is a robust scientific model that provides a strong, but not perfect fit with the enormous amount of available biological, ecological and geological evidence in its explanation of the diversity of life and the dynamically changing set of species found in the deep past, and in the present.

      Abiogenesis, on the other hand, is highly tentative, highly incomplete, and necessarily much more speculative than a well-demonstrated model like evolution. In fact, there are multiple models, each with huge gaps, and very little evidence or means to test the models. Why? Because there is clear evidence that life has existed on earth for several billion years. If life indeed did arise from non-living material, the evidence for the process by which it occurred is likely long gone, either because it was destroyed by billions of years of material change that the earth has undergone since it would have occurred, or because the processes may well have been unique to the first constituted self-reproducing cells that are postulated as the end product of abiogenesis, from which life would have subsequently evolved as modeled by evolutionary biology, or . . . who knows?

      Religion and science overlap much more than some of the more rigid adherents from each camp are willing to acknowledge. They overlap more precisely, at minimum in the gaps of knowledge which will always exist. For many religious adherents, science is not a threatening replacement for religion, but a means of understanding the universe that God created. For some, on the other hand, it appears more threatening, because they believe that science has no room for God, or their religious texts conflict with what science suggests about the world.

      There are some in science, a minority, that prefer one or another abiogenesis models to the idea that a God exists that created the universe and life within it. But to me that is clearly a matter of choice or a matter of faith, since abiogenesis is mostly speculation, with few current prospects to find serious evidence to support any of the highly incomplete and overly simplistic models. Employers of the scientific method will continue to look for evidence and ways to increase understanding of how life originated, and more power to them. But as good scientists, they know that abiogenesis is barely science and explains very little.

      This puts everyone in the roughly the same boat regarding the origin of life: It is a matter of choice or a guess with too little to go on.

      The majority of Christians, best I can tell, accept science as complementary to their understanding of God. An excellent example of one is Francis Collins, a geneticist who directs our National Institutes of Health. He wrote a book entitled The Language of God, wherein he explains why he accepts the Theory of Evolution, but believes that God exists and created the world.

      Essentially the way Collins and many others look at it, is that God created the Universe, and created the first living organisms on earth, which have evolved over several billion years into today’s biome. God made the rules by which the universe operates, and set it in motion, and here we are, still operating by his rules of ongoing creation. There is nothing serious in science to contradict this, and nothing serious in the Bible, for example, which contradicts this either. The language of the Genesis creation story allows for large amounts of time.

      A certain subset of Christians, often Evangelical fundamentalists, believe that the Bible is inerrant to the point where they read the Genesis creation story as literally occurring in seven days, and that the Bible via Old Testament genealogies shows that the world is roughly 6,000 years old. Many of these same people are advocates of Intelligent Design. The world is clearly not 6,000 old, but several billion years old, based on repeatable scientific measurement. There are alternate explanations for a Biblical timeline that supports current science: Collins above provides a reasonable one.

      The basic problem with New Earth Creationists or their cousins Intelligent Design (ID) advocates is that they attempt to belittle the underlying science both of abiogenesis and evolution. In my interpretation, they do so in multiple ways, all of which are not very compelling. First, they routinely apply their desire for certainty and for fixed explanations to scientific models and explanations, which as noted above always have some measure of uncertainty. Many ID and New Creationist arguments are of the kind that scientific models have changed from say, Darwin’s time, and so how can they be right if they keep changing their mind? The same kinds of arguments are done in reverse: Darwin said this, yet today’s evidence shows he is wrong, so, the evolutionary model must be wrong. Yet of course, scientific models change routinely as a better understanding develops. Second, many of their arguments arise from an incomplete understanding of the science involved, or a mis-application of a scientific understanding in one field to another where it is not applicable. Third, gaps are inevitable in all scientific theories. Strong theories like that of evolution are correct in many, many situations, so they are useful there. Where they are inaccurate or incomplete, they are not useful or less so. Those situations represent the frontiers of knowledge, to be probed for better understanding. Too many ID arguments attack the gaps as if they alone invalidate the body of evidence that supports the Theory of Evolution. Again, this is fundamentally NOT how science works.

      If you want a measured scientific response to any ID criticisms of the theory of evolution, a superb site is available, Talk Origins. It is organized to provide a scientific response to thousands of questions raised by ID/New Creationists, and has a good section on the models of abiogenesis, also. The site is particularly valuable because it provides a real contrast between evidence-based and limited science, and the ID tendency towards dismissive arguments and search for certainty. Talk Origins is not right and ID wrong, per se, but Talk Origins represents the practicalities of scientific thinking alluded to herein. I have not come across an argument on Talk Origins that claims certainty about any one aspect of the Theory of Evolution, but the arguments are evidence-based and testable. I have also found it more likely that aspects of ID claims will be acknowledged on Talk Origins, but see little evidence in ID literature of the same thing.

      As to the question of God employing death and destruction, God uses violence whenever God chooses to use violence. The Old Testament is awash with the violence of God – the Flood alone makes the point, with God destroying every living thing, including man, save a handful of each with which to start anew.

      Regarding God’s handiwork, Nature, death and destruction IS very good, and in fact a part of the very fabric of life, required for the living: All living things have a lifetime, and therefore die sooner or later; most living things destroy other living things in order to perpetuate their own lives; most species produce many more offspring than can survive in their resource-constrained environments; and so on. Perhaps another way of looking at the question is to note that most living organisms can only live if other organisms contribute, directly or indirectly, resources required for their metabolism. Eukaryotes need NH3 to form proteins and nucleic acids, without which they cannot live, but cannot manufacture NH3 from atmospheric nitrogen, and must rely on prokaryotes which can. Carrion eaters rely on the supply of dead organisms in order to feed themselves. Carnivores must kill and ingest other organisms in order to live. Coprophagic insects literally eat shit, half of which contains dead bacterial cells. As part of the cycle of life, dead organisms provide resources for the living.

      Death is usually perceived as horrific if it crosses aesthetic or moral boundaries. Most humans are not put off by the vast carnage that is Nature: Very few people give it another thought as they swat a fly or squash a cockroach, but do not like watching Bambi being consumed by a wolf. Murder is immoral, killing a pet is immoral, and for most people, killing a chicken for food or uprooting a weed is not.

  2. I read your review. Question if you’re willing: How is the concept of worldview overused by Colson and, I suppose by extension, Francis Schaeffer? Just finished Schaeffer’s book and interested in Colson’s. Seems to me “worldview” as Schaeffer uses it is plainly explanatory of human nature regarding how we live. Does Colson use it in same way? Are you willing to submit a nutshell of what I’m missing? You seem much more well read than I. Guess I’m looking for a shortcut to what you know that I don’t. Sorry, but it can’t hurt to ask.

    • I would be happy to respond. Thanks for reading the review.

      I addressed the overuse of the idea of a worldview in my four-part review of Schaeffer’s How Shall We Then Live, found here, or more specifically, the idea that ideology/religion provides a complete means to guide human behavior, or a complete picture of human history, or explains completely an individual’s worldview.

      Certainly Schaeffer’s explicitly historical account of the superiority of Christendom as a culture hewn from the Christian worldview, and the inferiority of modern culture as secular ideas have become more prominent, had significant gaps in it, and the gaps were not accidental: he systematically avoided historical facts that would weaken his thesis, and there are many. He has been called to account for this, not just by those who do not share his ideology or worldview, but also by those who do, such as his Evangelical Christian biographer, Barry Hankins. What is particularly disappointing in Schaeffer’s analysis of Western culture is that he employs an obvious historical double standard (he is not alone in this; in my own limited reading of Evangelical writings, it is the norm, and it can be found in any ideological apologetic writings): While avoiding whatever history that weakens his own arguments, he is not shy to apply the worst aspects of history that he thinks weakens ideologies he opposes, particularly any that can labeled as secular or godless.

      Beyond the intellectual dishonesty, Schaeffer’s analysis is often simplistic and trite where it is not plain wrong, for example assigning the historical blame for the Holocaust strictly to secular ideas like Darwinism, while ignoring the large historical contribution of anti-Semitic Christian culture, and ignoring those things in human behavior that transcend ideology, that is to say the motivations of fear and greed and hate, the survival instinct, institutional inertia, etc. The vileness of historical Christian anti-Semitism is partly the vileness of the almost universal use of scapegoats by human societies: The scapegoating of Jews in Europe would likely occurred whether under another religion or no organized religion at all.

      My own point of view echoes Rod Dreher’s aphorism: Ideology is partial truth masquerading as the whole truth. The Bible, for example, is neither complete nor inerrant, unless those words are theologically twisted beyond any common understanding. This does not mean that God has not laid out a way for us to live our lives, but that we are constrained by our human limitations to fully comprehend them (it seems to me that Paul’s allusion to looking through a glass darkly is a Biblical description of exactly that).

      Some of Schaeffer’s own arguments sometimes unwittingly supported this point: An absolute morality should not shift with the times, or with differing sectarian interpretations, yet Schaeffer himself defends his concept of Christianity as an absolute morality by pointing out the British abolitionist movement in the 18th century as a triumphant example of Christianity as such. The immediately obvious and unanswered question would be: If slavery were absolutely immoral, why did it take until the 18th century in England to find Christian calls for its abolition? Why is the Bible largely supportive of slavery, both in the Old and New Testaments? Why is it that Christendom, from the late Roman Empire up until early modern times, generally treated slavery as a quotidian part of the social fabric? Why is it that in the United States Southern Christian ministers stood at the pulpit and defended the institution of slavery via Biblical interpretation while on the same Sunday abolitionist Christian ministers in New England said that slavery was incompatible with the Gospel of Jesus? Seriously different moral interpretations argue against an absolute morality.

      A lack of a demonstrably absolute morality does not render human motivations or discourse amoral or rudderless: There is large agreement among religious and secular societies on what is acceptable behavior and what isn’t, much of which predates the Bible. And there are valuable things to be garnered from different ideologies: Christianity (who does not admire the compassion of Christ, unless it is right-wing politicians in the United States today?), post-modernism (acknowledging the limitations of human logic and understanding does not render human endeavor absurd, but keeps us aware of the limits of our comprehension, ability to communicate, etc.), Existentialism (each of us as individuals make choices in our behavior, and that is what forms our moral life), etc.

      Making narrow parochial arguments for the ideology of choice is not intellectually compelling, and argues for an exclusivity based on a knowingly false certainty, rather than a more open search for those ideas that would serve society and the individuals it comprises.

      The overuse of the idea of worldview came across to me as a mechanism employed by Schaeffer and, in his turn, Colson to argue for Christianity a larger role than it actually played in Christendom by way of justifying not entirely warranted contemporary ideological and political transformations. One way to visualize this is to note that historical Christendom was utterly dominated, from say, Constantine to the U.S. and French Revolutions, by the single religion of Christianity, not necessarily by choice, but by the coercive power of the various states that comprised Christendom, both in Europe and the near East. (for example, heresy was a secular crime in all of these states.) This complete cultural dominance of Christianity was used by these authors to support their argument that all that was good in Christendom came from Christianity. But from such a simplistic argument must follow that all that was bad in Christendom also came from Christianity, a point of view that found no discussion from these authors. Any historian would describe either argument as seriously incomplete, and rightly so. Unfortunately, Schaeffer’s “history” suffered from more than the usual historiographical biases or interpretations, so much so as to render it little more than a slogan that might even have made Mani blush: Christianity Good, Secularism Bad.

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