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Escape from Reason (IVP Classics) Paperback – January 6, 2007
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Schaeffer had a way of communicating Christianity to modern culture--we need more like him today. This book provides an excellent introduction to his ideas. (Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, September 2007)
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Schaeffer sees the true beginning of the humanistic Renaissance in the work of Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274). Aquinas' dualistic Grace/Nature scheme was useful in many ways, but its critical flaw was in failing to recognize man's fallen intellect along with his fallen will. Aquinas saw man's intellect as essentially undamaged by the Fall. This had the unfortunate consequence of setting up man's intellect as autonomous and independent.
Aquinas adapted parts of Greek philosophy to Christianity, perhaps most importantly (and with the most negative consequences) the dualistic view of man and world as represented by the Grace/Nature split. As Schaeffer stresses, the main danger of a dualistic scheme is that, eventually, the lower sphere "eats up" the upper sphere. Another way to say the same thing is, once the lower sphere is given "autonomy," it tends to deny the existence or importance of whatever is in the upper sphere in support of its own autonomy.
Schaeffer explains how the Grace/Nature dualism eventually became the Freedom/Nature, then the Faith/Rationality split. He introduces his interesting idea of the Line of Despair, which began in philosophy with Hegelian relativism. Kierkegaard was the first major figure after this line. The line of despair is the point in history at which philosophers (and others) gave up on the age-old hope of a unified (i.e. not dualistic) answer for knowledge and life.
This new despairing way of thinking spread in 3 ways; geographically, from Germany outward to Europe, England and finally much later to America. Then by classes, from the intellectuals to the workers via the mass media (the middle classes were largely unaffected and remained a product of the Reformation, thankfully for stability, but this is why the middle class didn't understand its own children). Finally, it spread by disciplines; philosophy (Hegel), art (post-impressionists), music (Debussy), general culture (early T S Eliot)...then lastly theology (Barth).
Once this way of thinking set in, Schaeffer explains the need for "the leap," promoted by both secular and religious existentialists. On the secular side, Sartre located this leap in "authenticating oneself by an act of the will," Jaspers spoke of the need for the "final experience" and Heidegger talked of 'angst,' the vague sense of dread resulting from the separation of hope from the rational 'downstairs.' On the religious side, we have Barth preaching the lack of any interchange between the upper and lower spheres, using the higher criticism to debunk parts of the Bible, but saying we should believe it anyway. "'Religious truth' is separated from the historical truth of the Scriptures. Thus there is no place for reason and no point of verification. This constitutes the leap in religious terms. Aquinas opened the door to an independent man downstairs, a natural theology and a philosophy which were both autnomous from the Scriptures. This has led, in secular thinking, to the necessity of finally placing all hope in a non-rational upstairs" (p. 53, thus the book's title). This is in contrast to the biblical and Reformation message that even though man is fallen, he can and must search the scriptures to find the verifiable truth. Schaeffer devotes alot of space in his book to illustrating the many ways modern men have taken this "leap," assuming there is no rational way upstairs.
Schaeffer ends with a call to reject dualism and return to the reformation view of the scriptures, which is that God has spoken truth not only about Himself, but about the cosmos and history (p. 83). In order to do this, man must give up rationalism (i.e. autonomous reason), but by doing so he can retrieve rationality. "Modern man longs for a different answer than the answer of his damnation. He did not accept the Line of Despair and the dichotomy because he wanted to. He accepted it because, on the basis of the natural development of his rationalistic presuppositions, he had to. He may talk bravely at times, but in the end it is despair" (p. 82). No area of life can be autonomous of what God has said, since this will inevitably lead to the destruction of all value (including God, freedom and man). By placing all human activity within the framework of what God has told us, "it gives us the form inside which, being finite, freedom is possible" (p. 84).
God created man as significant, and he still is, even in his fallen and lost state. He is not a machine, plant or animal. He continues to bear the marks of "mannishness" (p. 89): love, rationality, longing for significance, fear of non-being, and so on. He will never be nothing.
The author emphasizes the existence of certain unchanging facts, which are true regardless of the shifting tides of man's thoughts. He challenges Christians to understand these tides and speak the unchanging truth in a way that can be understood in the midst of them.
Personally, I've come across Schaeffer quite late in my Christian career. It's a great pity I haven't found him much earlier in my Christian walk when I needed such encouragement and conceptual engagement. Until recently - more precisely, until Plantinga's encouragement and strong leadership - conservative Christian intellectuals demonstrated an inherent inability to engage popular culture. Lack of confidence and a certain disorientation with respect to limits and conceptual permissions characterised a lot of apologetic Christian thought in the 20th century. Why? Simply because most prominent Christian and ex-Christian thinkers, as part of the same culture, did not feel a burden to defend their faith. Instead, they felt the need to explore their faith in a critical way. As a result, they were co-responsible for producing such culture in the first place in their attempts to understand the world and our place in it.
Schaeffer is a thinker who expressed his view as to the conceptual understating of the ideological coordinates by which we live. He engaged pop culture of his day analytically giving us better knowledge and the incentive, even permission, so to speak, to re-contextualise our own understanding and analyses of pop culture. To me, he is what Slavoj Zizek is to theoretical psychoanalysts: a progressive thinker who is willing to take unconventional and highly controversial turns. Like Zizek, he sometimes fails to do justice to the subject-matter under discussion. But who does? That's why it is unnecessary to accuse him of misunderstanding of certain authors such as Kierkegaard as well as other individual thinkers. It is equally wrong to say that he didn't read primary sources. As I mentioned earlier, Schaeffer is interested in the effects produced by the analysed authors. He is not so much interested in their motives and intentions. For example, in his discussion on Hegel, Schaeffer perceptively observed what effects Hegel's thinking exerted on the Western world. I paraphrase: Hegel caused compression of individual identity into an excessive and all-encompassing rational Identity, which by default renders accessible and regulatory every aspect of one's life. Finally, driven by desire for utter regulation and overrationalisation of human behaviour, Hegelian system failed to accommodate subjective forms of individual expression. Notice, he is not discussing what Hegel really intended and what his motives were. He is interested in the effects. In this sense, it is possible to say that he developed a commentary on secondary sources.
How, then, should we read Schaeffer's Escape from Reason? My answer is simple: as part of a dialogue on contemporary culture. All of us who think and write about popular issues know that we provide only partial and subjective representations of facts and reality. In fact, we all exist in interaction with one another in which we express our views and opinions on what the world is or isn't, or what it should be like. So it is OK to accept Schaeffer as a conceptual thinker who expresses his views in a cultural dialogue. I encourage all thinking individuals who both agree and disagree with Schaeffer to read Escape from Reason thus informing their choices in matters pertaining to rationality and its failures. I guarantee they'll be motivated to examine the same authors with more focus and interest. Moreover, they'll certainly better understand the development of the Western culture and its current themes.