I truly don't know where to start in writing about Francis Schaeffer's How Should We Then Live? To say this book is an important read is an understatement. After seven years of classical homeschooling, I find it embarrassing that I am only just now getting to it.
It's easy to read the plethora of political, educational, and social commentaries available, and lament with the authors about how our society seems to be heading down the tubes. But how many of us know when that decline started? Believe it or not, it didn't start in the '60s or with the Clinton administration. As Schaeffer proves throughout his book, the Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture has been the result of an ongoing saturation of a humanistic world view.
"Most people catch their presuppositions from their family and surrounding society the way a child catches measles. But people with more understanding realize that their presuppositions should be chosen after a careful consideration of what world view is true. When all is done, when all the alternatives have been explored, "not many men are in the room" - that is, although world views have many variations, there are not many basic world views or basic presuppositions."
Schaeffer breaks this down into time periods: Rome; The Middle Ages; The Renaissance; The Reformation; The Enlightenment; The Rise of Modern Science; The Breakdown in Philosophy and Science; Modern Philosophy ad Modern Theology; Modern Art, Music, Literature, and Films; Our Society; Manipulation and the New Elite. The last chapter discusses the alternatives.
I can only manage to write about this book as I read it. It is so rich with insight that it would be overwhelming to try and summarize it in one sitting. I'll start with Rome.
Rome's hand print on Western civilization is everywhere. But, according to Schaeffer, "In many ways, Rome was great, but it had no real answers to the basic problems all humanity faces." The basic problem can, in fact, be summarized in two simple questions: Who is God? Who is Man? (Michelle Miller of TRUTH QUEST HISTORY does a fabulous job of making students think about this in her study of Rome.) The Roman way of thinking came from the Greeks. The Greeks attempted to build their society based on the city-state, the polis. The city state was made up of those people who were accepted as citizens. Schaeffer writes:
"All values had meaning in reference to the 'polis'....But the 'polis' failed since it proved to be an insufficient base upon which to build a society."
The Greeks and Romans also tried to build their societies upon their gods. This lengthy quote is worth reading over and over if you plan on teaching Ancient history to your children:
"But these gods were not big enough because they were finite, limited. Even all their gods put together were not infinite. Actually, the gods in Greek and Roman thinking were like men and women larger than life, but not basically different from human men and women...The gods were amplified humanity, not divinity...This being so, they had not sufficient reference point intellectually; that is, they did not have anything big enough or permanent enough in which to relate either their thinking or their living. Consequently, their value system was not strong enough to bear the strains of life, either individual or political. All their gods put together could not give them a sufficient base for life, morals, values, and final decisions. These gods depended on the society which had made them, and when this society collapsed the gods tumbled with it. Thus, the Greek and Roman experiments in social harmony ultimately failed."
Starting with Julius Caesar, Rome moved into an authoritarian style government. Later Augustus Caesar, Julius Caesar's grandnephew, came into power. Augustus became Pontifex Maximus, the head of state religion. He urged everyone to worship "the spirit of Rome and the genius of the emperor." Later, the emperors would rule as gods.
"Augustus tried to legislate morals and family life; subsequent emperors tried impressive legal reforms and welfare programs. But a human god is a poor foundation and Rome fell."
It is at this point in Schaeffer's book that he starts to draw out the distinctions between two opposing world views:
"It is important to realize what a difference a people's world view makes in their strength as they are exposed to the pressure of life. That it was the Christians who were able to resist religious mixtures, syncretism, and the effects of the weaknesses of Roman culture speaks of the strength of the Christian world view. This strength rested on God's being an infinite-personal God and his speaking in the Old Testament, in the life and teaching of Jesus Christ, and in the gradually growing New Testament...Thus the Christians not only had knowledge about the universe and mankind that people cannot find out by themselves, but they had absolute, universal values by which to live and by which to judge the society and the political state in which they lived. And they had grounds for the basic dignity and value of the individual as unique in being made in the image of God."
By pointing out Rome's cruelty, Schaeffer magnifies the value, or lack there of, that the Romans placed on human life. Again, this further illustrates the strengths of the Christian world view, and the price the Christians paid for adhering to it:
"Rome was cruel, and its cruelty can perhaps be best pictured by the events which took place in the arena in Rome itself. People seated above the arena floor watched gladiator contests and Christians thrown to the beasts. Let us not forget why the Christians were killed. They were not killed because they worshiped Jesus. Various religions covered the whole Roman world...Nobody cared who worshiped whom so long as the worshiper did not disrupt the unity of the state, centered in the formal worship of Caesar. The reason the Christians were killed was because they were rebels...they worshiped Jesus as God and they worshiped the infinite-personal God only. the Caesars would not tolerate this worshiping of the one God only. It was counted as treason."
Schaeffer goes on to say:
"They worshiped the God who had revealed himself in the Old Testament, through Christ, and in the New Testament which had gradually been written...All other Gods were seen as false gods."
The Christian world view had answered the two questions with one resounding claim: God is God; man is not.
"We can also express in a second way why the Christians were killed: No totalitarian authority nor authoritarian state can tolerate those who have an absolute by which to judge the state and its actions."
(This would later become a key issue in the Reformation as the reformers challenged the Roman Catholic Church's self-appointed authority.)
As the empire deteriorated, violence, excessive gratification, and rampant sexuality became commonplace. Even though Constantine ended the Christian persecution and established Christianity as the state religion, apathy, according to Schaeffer, was the "chief mark of the empire."
"One of the ways apathy showed itself was in a lack of creativity in the arts...The elite abandoned their intellectual pursuits for social life. Officially sponsored art was decadent, and music was increasingly bombastic. Even the portraits on the coins became of poor quality. All of life was marked by the predominant apathy."
Contrary to popular teaching, the barbarians weren't the cause of Rome's demise. Rome's fall was a steady erosion. Rome had didn't have a sufficient inward base.
Reading Schaeffer's book has helped me to more clearly define my own world view, and more effectively teach history to my children. I have always preached to my kids, "If we don't learn history; the good, the bad, and the ugly, we WILL repeat it." This book is indispensable for teaching history with a Christian world view. Likewise, it is indispensable for evaluating the ills plaguing society today.
Next up on the Schaeffer review: The Middle Ages.