[This is a report that I completed as an assignment for school. It is based on Francis Schaeffer’s foundational work ‘How Should We Then Live? The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture.’ In my opinion, this should be mandatory reading for all Christians in order to promote a Biblical worldview, as well as to better understand the origin and influence of humanistic thought and ideas.]
‘There is a flow to history and culture. This flow is rooted and has its wellspring in the thoughts of people.’ These are the words that begin the book ‘How Should We Then Live?’ It is fascinating to see the way in which these words are brought to bear as we explore the pages of this foundational work.
‘In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth,’ and since the fall of mankind, men have sought to provide an explanation as to who God is, who we are, and why we are here. Dr. Schaeffer does a brilliant job of tracing the various ideologies and philosophies that have existed and developed over time, which deal with these very questions. Through the ages, man has tried to reconcile this conundrum through the various branches of knowledge. The fields of philosophy, psychology, mathematics, logic, biology, and history all seek to provide their own key to unlock Pandora’s Box, but, for all of their efforts, man has yet (within himself, or beginning from himself) to provide a viable conclusion to these pivotal questions.
Certainly, cultures, societies, civilizations, governments, and empires have proven to be temporary blips on history’s radar, but the ideas that are founded within these various socio-religio-political structures seem to take on a rather ‘transcendent’ nature when we view their ‘evolution’ over time. For example, as Dr. Schaeffer points out, though the theologian Thomas Aquinas lived some 800 years ago (1225-1274), his idea of blending Christian and non-Christian thought into one has, through years of maturation, transpired into various forms of secular humanism and liberal Christianity that exist even today. Certainly, there were others who sought to spread this same ideology, but Aquinas had a special influence as a theologian/philosopher in the Middle Ages, which led to his ideas being propagated with more efficacy. Schaeffer says that ‘Aquinas held that man had revolted against God and thus was fallen, but Aquinas had an incomplete view of the Fall. He thought that the Fall did not affect man as a whole but only in part. In his view, the will was fallen or corrupted, but the intellect was not affected. Thus people could rely on their own human wisdom, and this meant that people were free to mix the teachings of the Bible with the teachings of non-Christian philosophers.’ This form of thinking first became prevalent in the Church, due to Aquinas’ Christian origins, but it also made headway into the world of secularism as well.
We must remember that, though an idea begins with a single man, it is not necessarily true that it will end with that same man. Ideas are passed down and built upon so frequently that, within a generation or two, it can be difficult to trace the idea back to its origin. Thus, we find the ideas of Aquinas taking a slightly different direction in the age of the Renaissance. During the Renaissance (which literally means ‘Rebirth’), man sought to confront his own limitations and inabilities through autonomous philosophies. Autonomy is the idea that man, beginning from himself, can and will accomplish all things. We see this exemplified in the works of Michelangelo (as well as others). In his statues of men tearing themselves out of the rock (1519-1536), the philosophy of humanism is on full display. It is saying that ‘Man will make himself great. Man as Man is tearing himself out of the rock. Man, by himself, will tear himself out of nature and free himself from it. Man will be victorious.’ This is true also in his ever-popular ‘Statue of David,’ which portrays, not the Biblical David, but the idealized version of what man is to become through his own autonomy.
Toward the end of the Renaissance (and overlapping it to some degree), the Reformation broke out in Northern Europe. The Reformation existed as a countermeasure to the philosophies of men (such as those we have seen thus far) that had taken over the Church. The men of the Reformation sought to re-institute the Biblical worldview, which had been so lost since the time of the First Century Church. In this, there was a certain reemergence of the Biblical view of God and Man. The benefits of this reemergence expressed themselves in the various outlets of Church and state in the areas where the Reformation had the most influence. The Biblical concept that man as a creature made in the image of God, and therefore containing inherent worth and value as an image-bearer, had a great influence on the personal freedoms (or rights) of individuals that lived during this time. Obviously, the Reformation did not have a universal effect on the world itself, but it was monumental to the reintroduction of a Biblical worldview to the Church. Thus, we could say, in as much of a way as we can trace the roots of secular humanism that exist today, with all of its detriments in society, back to the ideas of the men of the Renaissance, so we can trace much of the orthodox functioning of the church that exists today, with all of its benefits, to the men of the Reformation.
Much more could be said about the influence of science, the arts, philosophy, and mathematics, and how they have had their bearing on the world, but, suffice it to say, the conclusions of these branches of knowledge find their existence and influence among us today. Man has found that the end result of his autonomous reasoning has only led to apathy, skepticism, and a rigor mortis of morals and values. Man has come to be seen as a mere machine with no ultimate purpose or meaning. We see this most clearly in the philosophies that have existed in the last several hundred years. Many have sought to remain optimistic while holding on to such philosophies, but, with no ultimate basis for such optimism, tragedy has always ensued, freedoms have quickly been taken, and tyranny has inevitably arisen.
In conclusion, without a Biblical understanding of God, man, and the state and purpose of this fallen world, there will always exist such misery leading to apathy. Without the framework which a Biblical worldview provides, all we are left with is ourselves as the center of all things. This being the case, it becomes impossible for man to find his true purpose and value in the universe.
The three most valuable things I learned from this book are:
- First, through this work, I have gained a greater appreciation for the arts. Before, I would ignorantly pass over works of art with little to no thought. Now, with the understanding that art gives off a reflection of the worldview/philosophies that were prevalent during the time in which they were produced, it has caused me to look more carefully at various pieces of art from various time periods.
- Second, I have always enjoyed studying history. Yet, after coming to faith in Christ, I found it difficult to find reliable sources that were not biased by the secular slant of society. Through interaction with Schaeffer’s book, I have discovered an abundance of reliable resources to further my studies of history.
- Third, and most importantly, Schaeffer’s work has provided me with a deeper understanding of how we (as a society) have gotten to where we are. This book truly has been the greatest work on Christian ‘worldview’ that I have come across, and I look forward to visiting it time and time again!
 Schaeffer, Francis A. How Should We Then Live?: The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture. Crossway, 1976.
 Ibid, 51-52.
 Ibid, 71.