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The line of despair

The God Who is There by Francis A. Schaeffer
The God Who is There by Francis A. Schaeffer
E. M. Vargas' personal library

When Francis Schaeffer wrote the books The God Who is There and Escape From Reason, he was responding at the time to the pessimistic posture of the mind that he detected in a growing number of modern thinkers of his days. These thinkers were then abandoning the plausibility and validity of their search for truth and meaning as well as what is generally called knowledge.

Schaeffer laments,

The present chasm between the generations has been brought about almost entirely by a change in the concept of truth.

Wherever you look today the new concept holds the field. The consensus about us is almost monolithic, whether you review the arts, literature, or just simply read the newspapers and magazines such as Time, Newsweek, The Listener or The Observer. On every side you can feel the stranglehold of this new methodology – and by ‘methodology’ we mean the way we approach truth and knowing. It is like suffocating in particularly bad London fog. And just as fog cannot be kept out by walls or doors, so this consensus comes in around, till the room we live in is no longer dis­tinct, and yet we hardly realise what has happened.

The tragedy of our situation today is that men and women are being fundamentally affected by the new way of looking at truth and yet they have never even analysed the drift which has taken place. Young people from Christian homes are brought up in the old framework of truth. Then they are subjected to the modern framework. In time they become confused because they do not understand the alter­natives with which they are being presented. Confusion becomes bewilderment, and before long they are overwhelmed. This is unhappily true not only of young people, but of many pastors, Christian educators, evangelists and missionaries as well.

So this change in the concept of the way we come to knowledge and truth is the most crucial problem, as I understand it, facing Christianity today.

Such a “new concept of truth,” or the sudden emergence of a “new methodology” in approaching truth and knowledge, Schaeffer identifies as a new way of thinking that he specifically locates under what he calls “the line of despair.”

Here then is the dividing line that separates thinkers who are still convinced that there must have been absolute truth principles that govern the world (they are those Christians and non-Christians alike who think and live above the line of despair) from those who have resigned them­selves to the notion that this cannot be the case.

Following Hegel, who Schaeffer suspects was the first thinker to open the door into the line of despair, many philosophers eventually conceded that there is after all no truth or meaning out there for the rational mind to search for. So they eventually retreated to either skepticism or irrationalism.

But while Hegel is to blame for opening the door into the line of despair, Schaeffer suggests that it was the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard who was the first to go below the line. No one could arrive at synthesis by reason alone, Kierkegaard complained, suggesting that it could only be made possible through a “leap of faith.”

“Schaeffer uses a vivid image to describe this dilemma,” says Schaeffer scholar Nancy Pearcey,

He says modern thinkers often make a “leap of faith” from the lower story to the upper story. Intellectually they embrace scientific naturalism; that’s their professional ideology. But this philosophy does not fit their real-life experience, so they take a leap of faith to the upper story where they affirm a set of contradictory ideas like moral freedom and human dignity—even though these things have no basis within their own intellectual system.

As Reformed theologian-philosopher Robert Reymond puts it,

Of course, when Hegel abandoned the biblical concept of rational antithesis (A is not non-A) for his concept of dialectic truth (the thesis-antithesis-synthesis process), in which concept syntheses continue to emerge from the process of conflict between opposing theses and antithesis and in which concept truth is to be found only at the ultimate end of the process, his own philosophy is untrue because it is only a part of the unfinished dialectic process. In other words, if Hegel’s philosophy is true, it is false! And when Kierkegaard abandoned the biblical concept of truth for his concept of truth as unresolvable theses and antithesis, he gave up all possibility of ever identifying a real truth statement anywhere. Accordingly, these philosophers have abandoned rationality for irrationality and are now urging that meaning has nothing to do with thinking rationally.

In the final analysis, what Schaeffer was actually reacting to at the time, so notes American Baptist theologian Millard Erickson, “was postmodernism, but before anyone, including the adhe­rents themselves, knew what it was.”

And what he has to offer is simple: the biblical Christian worldview is the only antidote to this modern/ postmodern despair. No, it does not require an existential leap of faith into to the irrational upper story. What it rather requires is for moderns and postmoderns alike to abandon the notion of the autonomous self and turn to the God of the Bible who alone is able to offer a unified answer for the whole of life.

“Come now, and let us reason together,”
Says the Lord,
“Though your sins are like scarlet,
They shall be as white as snow;
Though they are red like crimson,
They shall be as wool.
If you are willing and obedient,
You shall eat the good of the land;
But if you refuse and rebel,
You shall be devoured by the sword”;
For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.

- Isaiah 1:18-20 (NKJV)

References:

  • Erickson, Millard. Postmodernizing the Faith: Evangelical Responses to the Challenge of Postmodernism. Grand Rapids, IL: Baker, 1998.
  • Pearcey, Nancy. Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from Its Cultural Captivity. Whaeton, IL: Crossway Books, 2004.
  • Reymond Robert. A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith: Second Edition – Revised and Updated. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1998.
  • Scheffer, Fancis. Escape from Reason. Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity, 1968.
  • ____________. The God Who Is There. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1968.

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