“How could a book written 50 years ago so accurately make sense of what’s happening today?” Those were my thoughts as I read Francis Schaeffer’s book The Church at the End of the Twentieth Century. I’ve mentioned Francis Schaeffer a few times lately – I’ve discovered his writings over the last couple of years, and they have been immensely helpful to me. (I wrote a post on Understand the Bible about why you should read True Spirituality which you might also like.)
A few weeks ago, I read a post over on the Gospel Coalition, Francis Schaeffer Warned Us About 2020. I decided to read the book on the strength of that review, and it was well worth it. I’d like to add my own thoughts here, because I think Schaeffer really hits the nail on the head when it comes to our current cultural moment. Even though he was writing 50 years ago, I think he saw things happening in society which have grown and come to fruition.
Diagnosing the problem
The first step is to diagnose the problem. Schaeffer saw that the problem lies ultimately in a society rejecting God. Everything wrong about society flows from that one single thing. In the first chapter of the book, he outlines briefly his thesis (which is developed in more detail in The God Who is There and Escape From Reason, both of which are part of the Trilogy).
This is what he says:
If we do not begin with a personal Creator, eventually we are left (no matter how we string it out semantically) with the impersonal plus time plus chance. We must explain everything in the mannishness of man and we must understand all of the complexity of the universe on the basis of time plus chance.
What he means by “the mannishness of man” is man made in the Image of God. That is, Christians believe that human beings are not random products of evolution, but made in God’s image to love and worship him. We are more than simply biological machines! But, if a society removes a personal Creator, you end up with having to explain everything in terms of biology or physics (etc). It is all, as he says, “time plus chance”. If you remove God, there can be no other explanation.
But why do we still hold onto some Christian values?
They keep thinking in the old way as a memory of the time before the Christian base was lost in this post-Christian world. However, the majority in the middle class have no real basis whatsoever for their values since they have given up on the Christian viewpoint. They just function on the ‘memory’.
Christian values still hang around – but we’ve ditched the thing that gave then any basis. Once you ditch Christianity, there’s no real reason that Christian values should stick around. The key point for Schaeffer is that Western society has abandoned God, and whatever still remains of Christianity is a simply a memory.
What happens when you lose Christianity
An expert totalitarianism
So what happens to a society when you abandon God? Here’s where it starts to get interesting with respect to what’s happening at the moment. Here Schaeffer refers to John Kenneth Galbraith’s book The New Industrial State:
Culture has lost its way and we should now have somebody new to direct it. Who should direct it? Galbraith’s answer was and is: the academic and especially the scientific elite, plus the state. To those who know Plato, it all sounds very familiar. The philosopher kings are to be reinstated.
Once God is taken out of the picture, society needs roots – it needs direction. Schaeffer senses that the direction is going to come from a new elite made up of experts. The scientists and the academics are going to be in charge, with the power of the state. And it will need to be the power of the state:
If we have an academic, scientific, state elite without any controls upon them, without any outside universal to guide them, it will undoubtedly lead in the direction of an Establishment totalitarianism.
If an elite are in charge without any controls – an ‘outside universal’ (i.e. God), then there can be no moral absolutes. They will do whatever they think is best, even if that means imposing restrictions on a whole population under the threat of prison.
So, if a group of scientists decide that the best way of saving lives is to lock 67 million people in their homes for a year, then that is what they will do.
Another man who understood this and saw this coming was C.S. Lewis – see this post by Graham Shearer.
The totalitarianism of the New Left
Schaeffer also saw the rise of the New Left. He doesn’t really go into detail about the values of the New Left, but he does say “Here is the complete opposite to the Free Speech movement – a few hundred tell many thousands they must be still”. It’s a movement which is opposed to the free expression of ideas – certain ideas are ‘correct’, and others are forbidden.
This, too, is a totalitarianism:
Some have quit the New Left because it has dawned on them that they are building a new fascist regime, a new fascism in the sense that an elite without any controls upon it, with no universals to impose upon it, is telling everyone else to shut up and listen to them alone.
I find this absolutely fascinating looking at what has happened over the last few years with ‘woke’ ideology, which I’ve talked about before e.g. about Cancel Culture. The ‘woke’ like to call other people fascists, but the reality is they behave like fascists themselves: they do not tolerate any other opinions, they want to prevent people being able to express their ideas in the public square. This has happened because – again – they have “no universals” (i.e. God). There is no absolute right and wrong.
We are left with a choice between which kind of totalitarianism we want: the New Left or an Establishment elite:
This, then, is the situation. Whether it is a Left Wing elite or an Establishment elite, the result is exactly the same. There are no real absolutes controlling either. In both cases one is left with only arbitrary absolutes set by a totalitarian society or state with all the modern means of manipulation under its control.
When you free yourself from the control of a universal – i.e. God – Schaeffer foresaw exactly what would happen. You end up with a small group of people trying to demand ideological conformity (the New Left), or you end up with rule by experts.
The silent majority
Most of us are not part of the Establishment Elite or the New Left. So what happens to everyone else – the Silent Majority? Unfortunately, the Silent Majority – unless they are Christians “standing in the stream of historic Christianity”, who have absolutes – do not fair well:
the Silent Majority are living on the memory of the practical advantages that Christian culture gave but who themselves have no base for these advantages. Their values are affluence (they are practical materialists) and personal peace at any price. Having no base, no absolutes, most of them will compromise liberty any time that they are finally forced to choose between their affluence and personal peace on the one hand and the giving up of a piece of liberty on the other.
So the Silent Majority, at least those who do not hold to any absolutes, only have the values of affluence and personal peace. When these things are threatened they will give up their liberties. This is how totalitarianism comes in: when people’s core values are threatened, they will accept the state taking power upon itself to resolve it. Totalitarianism always comes in on the back of rapturous applause, because people believe it is going to sort out the issues which need to be sorted out. Unfortunately, it never ends well.
So if the silent majority opt for totalitarianism, what about evangelicals?
The danger is that the evangelical, being so committed to middle-class norms and often even elevating these norms to an equal place with God’s absolutes, will slide without thought into accepting the Establishment elite.
Schaeffer saw that the church 50 years ago had become very middle-class. If that was the case then, how much more so today? I think part of the problem over the last twelve months has been the connection of the church with the establishment. Going along with lockdowns has been seen to be the ‘correct’ thing to do which all right-thinking people agree with. (You could say something similar about other ideas, such as “Brexit is a terrible thing”). Challenging lockdowns is a costly business, personally and professionally.
Why is it that the church – nationally at least – has done little over the last twelve months apart from repeating government mantras about keeping everybody safe? One could be forgiven for thinking that the church doesn’t really believe in the resurrection, or that God is sovereign over all things and protects his people. Is it because the church has simply become another arm of the establishment? Perhaps the church wishes to keep its middle-class respectability and status rather than be obedient to Christ.
Everything is manipulation
The final thing which I want to touch on is how everything, including science, is about manipulation rather than truth. This flows directly from taking God out of the equation: once there is no absolute, there is no absolute truth. Schaeffer gives the example of a scientist who did not believe in a particular theory of evolution, not because of evidence but because he wanted not to be racist. He goes on:
This is a non-objective, sociological science. Conclusions are determined by the way a scientist wants the results to turn out sociologically. It is a science which will manipulate society by the manipulation of scientific ‘fact’ … Beware, therefore, of the movement to give the scientific community the right to rule. They are not neutral in the old concept of scientific objectivity. Objectivity is a myth that will not hold, simply because these men have no basis for it.
This is exactly where we’ve come to in society now. The whole notion of truth, even scientific truth, is out of date. I have talked about this a couple of times recently – about political truth and covid.
It’s no surprise that science should be wielded as a political tool. At every point over the last twelve months, our government have said they are “following the science”. But so much of the time, as I have tried to make clear in other posts, science has been given as a pretext to justify a particular political course of action.
Science has been co-opted to serve a political agenda, because we are not dealing with absolute truth any more. This flows directly from our society’s rejection of God.
What is the solution?
Schaeffer outlines three ways that Christians need to respond:
Firstly, recognise that co-belligerents are not allies. Too often I think Christians equate a particular political perspective with the Kingdom of Heaven. Schaeffer cautions us that, even if we may have the same aims as a political movement, there is a difference between being co-belligerents and allies. We must stand up for what is right wherever that may be – e.g. on the political right or left. We are not of this world. Schaeffer says we should think like this:
I stand alone with God, the God who has spoken in the Scripture, the God who is the infinite personal God, and neither of your two sides are my side. And if I seem to be saying the same thing at some one point, understand that I am a co-belligerent at this particular place, but I am not an ally.
Secondly, we need to take truth seriously. In a generation where there are no absolutes, where even science has become manipulative, we need to take our stand on the truth. Schaeffer says:
We must practise the truth even when it is costly… this is a time to show to a generation who think that the concept of truth is unthinkable that we do take truth seriously.
I have talked about this before in my post on truth, so I will direct you to there for a more detailed discussion.
Thirdly and finally, we need to practise true Christian community. Schaeffer says:
With an orthodoxy of doctrine there must equally be an orthodoxy of community. Our Christian organisations must be communities in which others see what God has revealed in the teaching of his Word.
In other words, we need to practice what we preach. We need to be a community where the truth is not only honoured, but shown in the relationships we have with each other. We need to live by the truth, not just profess it with our mouths.
Ultimately, this is the way to win back a generation that has wandered away from God: showing the world – not just proclaiming – what it means to walk with God. If we only talk about God but don’t walk with him, nothing will change. But real change can happen when we actually show to the world what kind of a difference God makes.