|The God Who Is There, 30th Anniversary Edition|
Francis A. Schaeffer
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The God Who Is There was first published in 1968. Thirty years and 400,000 copies later, its still going strong. When Francis Schaeffer wrote The God Who Is There, his analysis of society shocked the evangelical community with its clarity and understanding. Today, his words seem prophetic, as postmodernism, and its inherent relativism, have taken hold of society with a relentless grip.
The God Who Is There is a full, deep, penetrating look at society and its relation to the church (and vice versa), but it can be summarized in five basic passions, according to author and editor James Sire, in the foreword. One, a passion for the God who is there, the God who directly engages with his people. Two, a passion for truth. Schaeffer felt that the conflict seen in society stemmed from differing concepts of truth, and he calls us to return to the truth of Scripture. Three, a compassion for people. As Schaeffer states in the book, "As I push the man off his false balance, he must be able to feel that I care for him. Otherwise I will only end up destroying him..." Four, a passion for culture. Without a deep, full understanding of what the world is thinking about and chasing after, the church cannot speak the truth of the Gospel effectively to it. Five, a passion for relevant and honest communication. Schaeffer brilliantly focuses on how many in our society use words to mask the real meanings and to hide reality. He calls us to unmask the meanings, and to face reality squarely.
Thirty years ago, Schaeffer spoke out against rational humanism and relativism because they dehumanize people and because they lead to despair. And now, in a culture that prides itself on individualism and relativism, we see the continuing death of human dignity and personality that Schaeffer spoke about. The God Who Is There is at least as relevant now as when it was first published, if not more relevant. The issues first highlighted in 1968 have become much more central in our culture in the 21st century. So join with Schaeffer in calling people back to a relationship with the God who is there.
|From the foreword:|
It is hard to understand how an orthodox, evangelical, Bible-believing Christian can fail to be excited. The answers in the realm of the intellect should make us overwhelmingly excited. But more than this, we are returned to a personal relationship with the God who is there. If we are unexcited as Christians, we should go back and see what is wrong. (p. 190)
The God Who Is There was Francis Schaeffer's first book, but it was not my first introduction to the man. [Escape from Reason (1968) was the first of the two books to be published in England by IVP-UK in the spring of 1968, but it derived from lectures given after those at Wheaton College in 1965 that became The God Who Is There (1968)] Almost forty years ago, while in graduate school at the University of Missouri, I was puzzling out the relation between my faith and my academic study of English literature. I had found little either in theology or Christian philosophy to help me. Fortunately, I had discovered neoscholastic philosophers like Jacques Maritain and Étienne Gilson, and the Russian intellectual Nikolai Berdyaev. But there was no one whose Christian tradition was close to my own mid-American evangelicalism.
Jay Adams, then a fellow graduate student in speech, said, "You now should read James Orr and Abraham Kuyper. And, most of all, you should get together with Francis Schaeffer. Orr and Kuyper are from a previous generation, but Schaeffer is doing now just what you're interested in." I immediately read Orr and Kuyper and was helped greatly. But Francis Schaeffer, then unpublished and living in Switzerland, was beyond my reach. I promptly forgot about him.
|Five or six years later, when I became the editor of InterVarsity Press, two books by Francis Schaeffer were in the publishing pipeline. Escape from Reason would have been published first, but its delivery from the British printer was postponed by a strike on the St. Lawrence Seaway. The God Who Is There was being printed in the United States, the result being that both books were released in the fall of 1968, just a few days before Schaeffer gave the lectures at Wheaton College that became Death in the City.|
I vividly remember my first exposure to Schaeffer's ideas. It came the summer of 1968 as I read the British edition of Escape from Reason, first half on the train into Chicago from Downers Grove, second half on the return. And I was disappointed. Schaeffer did not understand the Renaissance, I thought. Seventeenth-century English literature was my field. I knew the Renaissance rather well, I thought. But Schaeffer saw a different reality. Then I read The God Who Is There and still was disappointed, even making occasional disparaging comments to my colleagues.
It was months later that I realized I had been wrong. I had simply misread Schaeffer. What made the difference was my first full-fledged editing task: Death in the City. This required transforming the transcripts of Schaeffer's Wheaton lectures into prose that could be read without the presence of the speaker's voice. Among the many things this project taught me is the marked difference between the idioms of spoken and written English. I had to immerse my mind in the mind of the speaker, think his thoughts after him and recast the sentences. By the time I had finished this process, I knew why my first readings of Schaeffer were so off target. Death in the City reshaped my own grasp not just of Jeremiah and Romans, its subjects, but my understanding of The God Who Is There and Escape from Reason as well.
For many people raised on Schaeffer in the 1960s and 1970s, this recasting was never necessary. Schaeffer spoke their language. They had not been schooled in the traditional language of cultural criticism; they did not know that rationalism was a word normally used to describe the philosophy of a limited number of early modern philosophers (Descartes, Spinoza and Leibnitz) and that Locke, Berkeley and Hume were called empiricists. Schaeffer referred to all of these and a host of other philosophers as rationalists. But Schaeffer by his own explicit definition was not wrong.
|Schaeffer defined rationalism as "the system whereby men and women, beginning absolutely from themselves, try rationally to build out from themselves, having only Man as their integration point, to find all knowledge, meaning and value" (pp. 29-30). And he consistently used the word in this sense. If I had extended Schaeffer the right to be an original philosopher, I would not have made so many mistakes in my first reading.|
So: a caveat to new readers of Francis Schaeffer. Lay aside your presumption that you understand all the terms he uses. Pay attention to Schaeffer's definitions. I am convinced you will find him an insightful and original philosopher. Conceptions like "the line of despair," "upper story" and "lower story" are unique to Schaeffer and brilliantly apt. There are, as well, twists on terms like "antithesis" and "dialectical method."
I recall a conversation with another publisher who said he hadn't read Schaeffer himself but that his wife had The God Who Is There in one hand and a dictionary in the other. The dictionary would help with words Schaeffer was using in common with the tradition, but she would need to pay attention to Schaeffer's own twist on many of them. Of course, she had one advantage over me: this was probably her first introduction to philosophical theology; her mind was yet to be shaped. My mind had to be reshaped; that's harder.
The God Who Is There for the Twenty-first Century
A new millennium is upon us. Has Schaeffer's thought any relevance to the beginning of the twenty-first century?
Schaeffer has had a tremendous impact on evangelical thought during the last four decades of the twentieth century. It is little exaggeration to say that if Schaeffer had not lived, historians of the future looking back on these decades would have to invent him in order to explain what happened. Moreover, Schaeffer will long be read, studied, imitated and transcended. There is no question about that. But I would like to single out five notions whose impact will, I trust, continue to resonate. I will call them passions, for that is what they were to Schaeffer and what I would want them to be for my generation and generations of Christians to come. They are a passion for the God who is there, a passion for truth, a compassion for people, a passion for relevant and honest communication, and a passion for Scripture.
|A passion for the God who is there. By this I do not, of course, mean the book. I mean passion for direct engagement with him who calls himself I AM. For Schaeffer, God is not the first thought or the first presupposition; he is the first "thing"--Being himself--infinite, personal, triune, intelligent, good, loving, engaging. Everything rests on him. Schaeffer began where we should all begin--with God himself. We do not presume to say anything about God he has not revealed about himself. God is God and we are not.|
I am convinced that if all our theologies began where Schaeffer's does, we would be far more humble about both ourselves and our theologies. As firm as Schaeffer was in his theological pronouncements, he was humble about his own accomplishments and willing to say (I heard him do so) to both his friends and his critics, "Okay. You don't like how I have put this. You think it can be done better. Please, go and do better."
One of the glories of Schaeffer's sermons, lectures and books is that they exude a sense of God. You feel as you read The God Who Is There that this man knows the God who is there, not as an abstraction but as one with whom personal encounter characterizes the relationship. Schaeffer did not like the word encounter in relation to God because he felt that it suggested an intellectually contentless relationship. But understood as filled with content, encounter is the right word. Schaeffer met God, one imagines, daily in devotion and always as the living background motif of all his thoughts and all his encounters with others.
|A passion for truth. This doesn't need my documentation. The first sentence of The God Who Is There reads: "The present chasm between the generations has been brought about almost entirely by a change in the concept of truth" (p. 25). For the next two hundred pages, Schaeffer rings changes on this motif.|
If his analysis was a surprise to evangelicals in the late 1960s, it is no surprise now. Our conception of what we can know has steadily been reduced. Early modernism held that we could know the truth about external reality. Late modernism allowed that we could know models and paradigms that at least assumed there is a determinate reality behind all scientific formulations. Postmodernism has reduced paradigms to language games in which truth becomes, in Richard Rorty's words, "a property of linguistic entities, of sentences." [Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony and Solidarity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), p. 7.] Schaeffer saw this coming. His analysis of the situation in the late sixties fits the nineties too. There has been no change in direction, just a growing sophistication in how life below and above the line of despair continues on its hectic pace.
The need to emphasize the unity of truth, the need to stand against the relativism that says, "Regardless of the content of our beliefs, I'm okay, you're okay, and that's okay": these remain, though the illustrations would be drawn from a fresh body of names. Writing today, Schaeffer would cite Rorty, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Jean-François Lyotard, Václav Havel and Richard Dawkins. Their names would appear as frequently as the names of Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, Léopold Sédar Senghor, B. F. Skinner and Francis Crick. But his basic approach would not need to change. Fortunately, many who have been influenced by Schaeffer have continued at least part of the task he set for himself--to understand the culture so that Christians could speak the truth o historic Christianity into the twentieth and now the twenty-first century.
|A compassion for people. I could have put this before Schaeffer's passion for truth and just after his passion for God. I have probably been more influenced by this than by any single or group of ideas. Here Schaeffer has shaped my heart, or more accurately, he has modeled a heart for people and has, thereby, encouraged me to let God shape my heart.|
Can there be anyone who has read his books or talked with him or heard lectures or observed him answering questions, sometimes from hostile critics, who cannot say, "Here is a man who loved not just humankind but Paul and Mary and John and Bill and every nameless person whom he touched?" Even in his books his compassion shows through both the illustrations he gives and the rhetoric he uses, not just to tell the stories but to explain his ideas. He pictures, for example, two lovers on the left bank of the Seine:
They fall in love and yet cry because they do not believe love exists. If I met any of these, I would put my hand gently on their shoulders and say, "You are separated from God if you do not accept Christ as your Savior, but at this moment you understand something real about the universe. Though your memory system may say love does not exist, your own experience shows that it does." They have not touched the personal God who exists, but for a fleeting moment they have touched the existence of true personality in their love. (p. 45)
How many of us--evangelists, apologists, philosophers, cultural critics--would think to react like this? There was a deep pastoral touch in all that Schaeffer wrote and did.
Many Schaeffer readers will recognize this illustration, for Schaeffer used it frequently in his talks. I will use it to make two general observations. The first concerns compassion. At St. Andrews University in Scotland, Schaeffer was talking with a particular difficult student.
After only two minutes of talking in his room, he [the student] said, "Sir, I don't think we are communicating." I started again. About two minutes later he repeated himself, "Sir, I don't think we are communicating." I began to think that the half-hour would be spent in a nonsense session! I look down and saw that he had very thoughtfully prepared a lovely tea. There it all was, pot of tea, cups and so on. So I said rather gruffly to him, "Give me some tea!" He was taken aback, but he passed me a cup, full of tea. Then I said, "Sir, I thing we are communicating." From then on we had a very effective conversation. (pp. 123-24)
|Notice the description ("very thoughtfully...lovely tea"): odd words for an intellectual apologist. Schaeffer was sensitive to the "mannishness" of the student: first, his sense of taste and (surprising) propriety (tea is almost a ceremony in Britain) and, second, his ability to communicate even if he denied it. Still, to make a point he shocked the student with his own feigned insensitivity. Here is a union of compassion and firmness, of love in the bounds of reason, respect in the bounds of truth.|
My second observation about this interchange with the student is that it illustrates his passion for relevant and honest communication. Christian friends of the difficult student had not been able to get a hearing for the gospel. Schaeffer found a way to break through the barriers to communication. He caught the student at a point of tension. The student held communication not to be happening, but he experienced it as happening. Schaeffer cleverly demonstrated to the student that even he knew communication was taking place. So here was an opening for communication not just about communication but about the reality that underlies our experience of communication and about the God who makes communication possible.
I can contrast Schaeffer's dialogue with a conversation I once had in a college lecture hall. Suddenly a student called out, "But communication is impossible." I replied, with considerable wit, I thought, "What?" He said it again, "People can't communicate." I replied, "What?" Again he repeated himself and I did too. At that point he got angry and walked out.
Cleverness is one thing, but it is to be used with caution. Not only did I lose the "audience" with the student, but I discovered as well that others in the room did not understand what happened. They were then lost to me as well. Schaeffer himself had an experience similar to mine, thought it was prompted by a student, not himself.
|Here is Schaeffer's own cautionary words about pushing people to the logic of their presuppositions:
This is not a game I am playing. If I begin to enjoy it as a kind of intellectual exercise, then I am cruel and can expect no real spiritual results. As I push the man off his false balance, he must be able to feel that I care for him. Otherwise I will only end up destroying him, and the cruelty and ugliness of it all will destroy me as well. (p. 156)
If we at the beginning of the twenty-first century have only one thing to learn from Schaeffer, let it be compassion for people.
A passion for culture. Some people might choose this as the defining feature of Francis Schaeffer. Others have a passion for truth and a compassion for people. Schaeffer combined that with a passion for understanding the contemporary context in which both truth and people fit. To love people and speak the truth one has to know the culture.
My memory of working with Schaeffer played me false as I began the task of rereading The God Who Is There. Having heard many of his lectures, and having edited a dozen of his books, including How Should We Then Live? and Whatever Happened to the Human Race? I found less cultural commentary in The God Who Is There than I had remembered. Much of it consists of thumbnail sketches of high points in the life and works of various philosophers, intellectuals, painters, writers and composers. Readers not familiar with the figures he discusses may be confused.
Some who are familiar with the figures he discusses may say that Schaeffer has not understood them. I thought so on first reading. But when one holds off the criticism until one understands what Schaeffer is looking at and what he has focused attention on, and goes back to the figures themselves to confirm one's views, Schaeffer's analysis often strikes home. Certainly he had a wide exposure to Western art and must have haunted museums. In much of his writing, the insights of art historian Hans Rookmaaker, his close friend and colleague, provided ballast for Schaeffer's comments. When he goes into detail, his remarks can be especially apt. Take for instance his treatment of John Cage (pp. 95, 97-99).
|The point of Schaeffer's cultural critique is not, of course, to produce an academic analysis. It is rather to explain to those who were living through the sixties and seventies just what was influencing their thoughts and lifestyles, whether they knew it or not. On this score, his work is masterful.|
The thumbnail sketches have inspired me to look differently at art works, to see what I hadn't seen and to continue the process over the years. Schaeffer would have liked that, even if I came up with conclusions that would differ from his. Of course, with his emphasis on antithesis, if our views contradicted each other, at least one of them had to be false!
A passion for relevant and honest communication. Schaeffer had an uncanny and I think intuitive ability to communicate to both intellectuals and ordinary people of his day. In his books and lectures he emphasized that evangelical Christians needed to know how and what the world thinks, and then to address the world with a relevant message. He called this "speaking historical Christianity into the twentieth century." The relevance of Christian rhetoric to the contemporary mind is crucial.
I taught English literature in college for over ten years. I thought I knew how to communicate with students concerning cultural issues. The day after the shooting of four students at Kent State University in May 1970, my college, Northern Illinois University, was in chaos. I found myself trying to explain to a class on John Milton what was going on. My own academically informed language was not getting through. Without telling the class what I was doing, I changed by analysis to the terminology of Schaeffer. Suddenly eyes began to light up. One student said, "If we had other classes like this, we wouldn't be rioting." Another asked, "Have you ever heard of Francis Schaeffer?" This student had learned of his work through the local Methodist Student Center. Schaeffer had done what he set out to do.
|But Schaeffer was not only interested in relevant communication. He was interested in honest communication as well. Among the important contributions Schaeffer made to good thinking in general is to unmask the way language is used by modern intellectuals, theologians and cultural commentators.|
Schaeffer would probably not like to be thought of as one of the hermeneuts of suspicion, but he performed for Christians a task much like theirs when he identified and gave examples of semantic mysticism. Words are often used to mask reality, to transform ideas about it into palatable form. Words like love, for instance, were then and still are being used for what it actually only raw physical sexual activity. "I love you" often means, more honestly, "I want to sleep with you," or something even cruder.
Schaeffer's unmasking of the word pantheism is especially apt:
Though it [pantheism] speaks of something absolutely and finally impersonal, yet the theism part of the word causes a reaction of acceptance, since theism carries overtones of personality. Now suppose you were to substitute the word pan-everythingism (which is what it really means). The whole reaction would be different. (p. 79)
Think about it. My first reaction was No, you're wrong. A pantheist believes that all of nature is divine; that it is indeed god. But that's exactly Schaeffer's point. The word god functions as if personality were involved. In the sort of pantheism Schaeffer is talking about (Advaita Vedanta Hinduism or Zen Buddhism, for example), there is no personality involved. That has been left behind. Even to say it has been transcended would be semantic mysticism because the word transcendent has in our culture a profoundly theistic sense. Better to say the Void (but then the capital on void functions as semantic mysticism) or that ultimately reality is pure energy without differentiation (but even energy has differentiation). Better yet to say, think or do nothing to address or describe ultimate reality.
|With this kind of critique, the whole of language could be seen to mask reality, to conceal plays for power, in short, to be subject to total deconstruction. But Schaeffer's critique is rooted in "The God who is there" who speaks a Word that is both personally and propositionally true. A God who in Scripture spoke words that name the world as the world really is.|
A passion for Scripture. This passion shows through all of Schaeffer's writings, lectures and sermons. In The God Who Is There this is both stated and operative as an underlying motif. God has spoken truly. The Scriptures are the propositional, verbalized revelation of God. All the presuppositions with which Schaeffer approaches his work are drawn from the Scriptures, so far as he understands them.
Nonetheless, with all his emphasis on the truthfulness of Scripture, with all the explicit use he makes of Scripture as the justification for his views, with all his concern for orthodoxy, he knew that the Scriptures were not the final thing.
The Bible, the historic Creeds and orthodoxy are important because God is there, and, finally, that is the only reason they have their importance. (p. 177)
Given this and the intellectual satisfaction that comes when the mind is in tune with the God who is there, "it is hard to understand how an orthodox, evangelical, Bible-believing Christian can fail to be excited" (p. 190).
This book has precisely the right title. It is a penetrating, magnificent, wise book by a man who knew then, and now knows more fully, though perhaps not even yet exhaustively, "the God who is there."
James W. Sire