Sunday, August 9, 2009

Summary of Francis Schaefer’s Article "He is There and He is not Silent" from Bibliotheca Sacra

Although relatively unknown in the general population, the theologian and philosopher Francis Schaeffer has had a tremendous impact on both Christian thought and American politics in the second half of the 20th century. Schaeffer was an early proponent of Christian activism and his works, including this one, formed the philosophic foundation for the Christian Right (see Clarkson, 1994, p. 2; Elliot, 2006, p. 1; and Olasky, 2005, p. 1). Elliot and Olasky credit Schaeffer for the presidency of George W. Bush.

Parkhurst (2008, p. 2) quotes Ronald Reagan and Billy Graham in eulogies for Schaeffer, who died on May 15, 1984. Reagan said, “He will long be remembered as one of the great Christian thinkers of our century.” Billy Graham said, “[Schaeffer is] truly one of the great evangelical statesmen of our generation.” Other prominent theologians who were profoundly influenced by Schaeffer’s works include Tim LaHaye, Hal Lindsay, and Jerry Falwell.

Ann Coulter, a spokeswoman for the Christian Right has popularized his later work on the conflict between the humanist and Christian worldviews (see Cochrane, 2007, p. 1; and Whitehead, 2007, p. 1). She is more strident than Schaeffer, who was more passive in his argumentation. Whitehead is opposed to both Coulter and Schaeffer. Billy Graham also expressed concern, despite respect for Schaeffer (see Hamilton, 2007, p. 3),
“It would disturb me if there was a wedding between the religious fundamentalists and the political right. [They have] no interest in religion except to manipulate it.”

This article, He is There and He is not Silent, is a summary of Schaeffer’s views on Rationalism and not humanism. Originally delivered as a lecture at the Dallas Theological Seminary it was then published as an article in the journal Bibliotheca Sacra and later expanded into a book.

The journal article was published in 1972, and in it Schaeffer analyzes the failure of Rationalism that became manifest in the 20th century and that is metastasizing in western culture today. The hope of societies based on Rationalism was the advancement of the human condition through the application of reason in a closed system of natural causes (See Schaffer, 1972, p. 5).

Rationalism has two parts, the induction of universals through rational analysis and their application to particular circumstances. This duality remerged in the humanistic renaissance (p. 4) with separate methodologies for deriving the universal truths and then applying them. Derivation proved problematic for the enlightened thinkers descended from the renaissance but as Schaeffer notes, not for the Christian thinkers descended from the reformation.

Application of universal truths to obtain conclusions has proved problematic also. Early monotonic logics produced optimism because they assumed the addition of another assumption to an argument with an already validated conclusion would not invalidate the conclusion. Or in other words, learning a new piece of knowledge cannot reduce the set of what is known. With more modern non-monotonic systems of logic this is not true. A new assumption may reverse a conclusion, which was validated under the original set of assumptions.

To Schaeffer, the difference between Christian revelation thinking and that of failed Rationalism, so admitted by modern philosophy, is that the fundamental Christian presupposition is the uniformity of natural causes in an open system. Schaeffer condemns modern intellectual thinking for its insistence on the closed system despite the evidence that its conclusions are “opposed to man’s knowledge of himself,” and ultimately dehumanize us (p. 4).

Christian epistemology allows for universals to come from outside the system, from One who does have true knowledge of the universals. It also explains the provision of sufficient but not exhaustive knowledge for applications of the universals, including communications between ourselves. On the other hand, Rationalism failed. Modern intellectualism sees the failure but does not change, preferring instead to live inside the failure.

Schaeffer observes a fundamental inconsistency in modern Rationalism. Language is the distinction between man and non-man and so says secular anthropology. Mankind uses structured and propositional communications. This is not possible for man trapped in the uniformity of causes in a closed system. Structured and propositional scrutiny is admittedly not possible in this framework, much less communication. Schaeffer’s point (p. 5) is that Rationalism, modern philosophy, and modern intellectualism fails to explain man, fails to explain the universe and fails to “stand up in the area of epistemology.”

In contrast, Christian presuppositions do form a basis for optimism on mankind’s ability for structured and propositional analysis. Furthermore, we have assurance of our ability to meaningfully communicate with each other, and for God to communicate with us (p. 6). He references the argument of Oppenheimer and Whitehead that modern science could only have been initially formed in the Christian setting (p. 7). The founders of modern science believed, as Whitehead so delightfully said “that because God is a reasonable God, man could discover the truth of the universe by reason.”

This framework enables a meaningful association to be established between a subject and object (p. 8). Furthermore, real values can be established regarding these associations that go beyond mere sociological averages. He goes on to say that this is how mankind acts in the world. There is a correlation between a subject and some object that is there. If we are in a room with an angry grizzly bear, we are not confused about the associated danger. The Christian view is in line with the way we all act in the world (p. 9). This extends into our interpersonal relations. We don’t have the sociopathic view of other people as machines to be manipulated.

Of communications, he says there are three possible views. The first is that meaning is so integrated with our personal background that no communication at all is possible. The second is that the meaning is entirely in the words or symbols and we are instantly assured of understanding. These two extremes are not how the world works. The third and proper view is that we all bring our own backgrounds to languages but there is enough overlap to “have a sufficient meaning for communication.”

He concludes this section of the article with the observation that we do not require an exhaustive knowledge of an object to have a meaningful association with it. We can truly know something without knowing it exhaustively. There only needs to be sufficient correlation (p. 10).
Schaeffer then discusses the reasonableness of categories. He argues that a reasonable God created the universe and therefore we should not be surprised that He created mental categories to organize our understanding of that world. The categories in the human mind fit with the categories of the external world (p. 11). He cites the work of Chomsky and Levi Strauss that investigated the uniform categories in the human mind.

The Bible not only gives us a propositional revelation about the world but more importantly shows how God works in the world (p. 12). This operation is in stark contrast to the “tremendous rushing wall of modern thinking.” The transcendent God operates with the understanding He revealed in the Bible. He only operates outside the world He created to prove a communication and these are the miracles, the proof of a prophecy.

What He tells us in the Bible is not exhaustive because our finiteness would not comprehend it. He gives us sufficient revelation to understand its nature. This gives us an epistemological certainty about the world of objects (p. 13). Science today is at risk of dying (p. 8). It has become a game in two ways (p. 13). First it has lost its basis for objective discovery. It has become only a method to record evidence. He compares scientists to ski bums who focus on one thing, and think of nothing outside of that one thing, no attempt to relate it to other knowledge. Secondly, as a game, scientists are manipulating their work according to their desires rather than being consistent with objective conduct and findings (p. 14).

The Christian precept of knowing without knowing exhaustively can also be applied to have true knowledge of someone else, knowing the inward person as distinct from his or her outward façade. Dr. Schaeffer as founder and director of the L’Abri foundation worked with young people from around the world and one of their primary concerns is the ability to know someone else and not just the outward persona. Schaeffer argues that again we do not need to know each other exhaustively so we don’t need to know another person perfectly to relate to them. He says (p. 15) that the “inward areas of knowing and meaning are bound by God as much as the outward world.”

We were made in the image of God so there is a basis from working with the outside façade to understand the inner person. Schaeffer also notes that the last commandment is not to covet. This is the internal world of a person. You shall not covet anything that belongs to your neighbor. It tells us something about the internal person.

He continues, that people want to have communication but find themselves in an inhuman mechanical world. The boy and the girl want to be open with each other yet the long married man and woman are completely alienated (p. 17). The solution is to bring the inner world of meaning, values and morals under God’s norms.

Finally, Schaeffer discusses what is real as distinct from what is fanciful supposition so we can have a proper foundation for decision-making. Created in the image of God, our imaginations are not confined to the real world. We can change things in our imagination and this is the moving force behind art, poetry, engineering and other human activity. This final point is fundamental and he eloquently expresses it.

“The Christian should be the person who is alive, whose imagination absolutely boils, who dares to produce something a little different than God’s world because God made man to be creative.”

List of Figures
Figure 1 Francis Schaeffer, retrieved on April 11, 2009 from

Figure 2 L’Abri Retreat, retrieved on April 11, 2009 from

Figure 3 Jose Ortega y Gasset, retrieved on April 11, 2009 fromé_Ortega_y_Gasset

Figure 4 Resor and Lansdowne, retrieved on April 11, 2009 from

Figure 5 Woodbury Soap ad by Lansdowne, retrieved on April 11, 2009 from

Figure 6 Disconcerting Disney Artwork, retrieved on April 11, 2009 from

Figure 7 Greta Garbo in Mysterious Lady, digital rights owned by George Ray

(these images are incorporated according to the Fair Use provisions of the copyright laws for educational purpose)

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