Standing with conviction and Francis Schaeffer
Sketch of Francis Schaeffer
Recently, I came across a quote by the preeminent evangelical intellectual Francis Schaeffer:
“Bible-believing Christians should never have the reaction designated by the term shocked.” No Little People
A fantastic saying. It summarizes an attitude Christians can and should possess: un-naive confidence. Our worldview encompasses the possible horrors of sin and the depths of personal darkness (we only need read the Bible). This quote called to mind Schaeffer’s works I’ve read (and re-read), How Should We Then Live?: The Rise and Decline of Western Thought, Art and the Bible, and Pollution and the Death of Man.
Francis Schaeffer left no stray thought or concept un-integrated into his Christian accounting. Art and music, technology and worship, nature and architecture, we must leave nothing unaffected by the influence of Christ.
His philosophy provokes the nominal Christian and challenges even the most dedicated Puritan. I appreciate his sanctified call to deeper contemplation, even if it irks me to imagine him frowning upon a harmless game of Dungeons and Dragons since it includes wizardry or critiquing a classic rock song because it touts sexual freedom.
I’m aware that his beloved work How Should We Then Live? contains some speculative and even erroneous history of philosophy (in fairness, it’s written to be accessible). Nevertheless, the work is brilliant and influential. I hold it dear as one of the original inspirations to take the leap into studying philosophy. In high school, it added fuel to the flames sparked by Plato’s Republic and On Guard by William Lane Craig.
Schaeffer was an exemplar for intellectual Christians in the public eye: Respectful, convicted, integrous, awestruck by the beauty, beholden to Christ, creative and orthodox, cultured yet principled. How Should We Then Live? retains relevance today, and I’d highly recommend it. Carl Trueman’s The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self accomplishes an updated but similar purpose: A brief, reflective, critical history of thought from an evangelical perspective.
L’abri: A community in the Swiss Alps (not a cult)
Schaeffer's life matched the high calling of his principles. Francis and his wife Edith listened to God’s call and moved their family to Switzerland with essentially no money. Edith Schaeffer is an excellent author in her own right and details a snapshot of their time founding the L’abri community in her book titled L’abri. God favored their mission, as a miracle after miracles entrenched them in a small ski village in the Swiss Alps. Their purpose? Welcome spiritual seekers into their home to debate, consider, dialogue, pray, and discuss the gospel in an intellectually rigorous manner.
Young people on holiday from across the world would stumble into a world-class philosopher’s home, and he would personally engage them by firelight with tea and homecooked meals. Eventually, the Schaeffers expanded from their original house, bit by bit, into a small community. The students came from around the world to stay in the snow-capped lodges. The young people, deconstructing or curious Christians, alongside agnostics and mystics, helped with chores, babysat the Schaeffer’s kids, and listened to lectures on all manner of philosophical subjects. At first, room and board was free. L’abri multiplied into several other locations across the world, and the ministry continues strong to this day. Nowadays, room, food, and board aren’t quite free, but it’s ridiculously cheap (around $40 a day).
Schaeffer was nothing if not principled about L’abri. It didn't make money, expand fame, or sell books, it simply reflected Edith and Francis’ heart for the young, wandering seekers of the world. They founded L'abri because they believed God called them to do it. It wasn’t flashy. There were no flyers or advertisements. They did not market or ask for money–God provided.
L’abri was something unique and powerful.
Francis Schaeffer’s close friend and theologian Os Guinness wrote of him:
“I have never met anyone anywhere like Francis Schaeffer, who took God so passionately seriously, people so passionately seriously, and truth so passionately seriously.” ("Fathers & Sons: Francis Schaeffer, Frank Schaeffer, and ‘Crazy for God")
Guinness wrote that defending Schaeffer from his son Frank's later disparagement.
Undoubtedly, Schaeffer was imperfect. Arguably, his entering into politics in any fashion, even indirectly, was a mistake. And the chief of Schaeffer's sins, workaholism, haunts many great thinkers.
I don’t believe everything he stood for, and he's imperfect, certainly, but the way Schaeffer stood inspires me still.
How should one stand with conviction?
Warning: The following thoughts are a bit meandering, but I promise they get somewhere.
I find myself writing with too many hedges. “Maybe,” “perhaps,” “something,” and, God forbid, “it’s possible that . . .” So, I’ve been thinking about how to truly stand for something.
How do you stand, or, find conviction, while remaining kind, respectful, and open-minded?
Aristotle’s golden mean applies here if anywhere. What’s the medium between brashness and cowardice? Courage. Find the medium between starvation and gluttony, between pride and self-effacement, says Aristotle, and you’ll find the good. The answer never sits quite in the center (so perhaps "mean" is a bit misleading), but the moral path always rests between extremes. The golden mean doesn’t work every time, but it’s a decent rule of thumb, and it applies to confidence in one’s ideas if anywhere.
Let's reflect on one end of the extreme. I’m reading an excellent work of fiction called Cloud Atlas. One of the protagonists, Timothy Cavendish, exemplifies the opinionated, crotchety, proud, and ostentatious Englishman. The elderly editor of a mediocre publishing firm judges with exactness to his detriment. He flexes an impressive breadth of literary knowledge and wields the English language like an A-class fencer, but he’s alienated from family, friends with none, and a lifelong bachelor. I don't want to be like that.
How about someone closer to the center? Perhaps Jacques Ellul. Ellul's words reverberate with profundity, and I’m only a chapter into The Technological Society (a groomsman gift from my friend Nathan Allen). Ellul is a modern prophet who doesn’t cite many sources, writing boldly from his own ideas. He's a French, Christian philosopher of the 20th century who talked big. He labeled himself a “Christian anarchist” and believed in universalism alongside a nevertheless strong view of sin. He’s most remembered for his exposition of technology and what he called “technique.” It’s something I want to write about soon. In any case, the way he strongly presents ideas on how technology controls us (rather than the other way around) forces me to think hard about my own life.
Maybe he’s closer to the golden mean.
I believe my old philosophy professor, Todd Kappelman presents his ideas confidently without pride well (he was a massive Ellul fan). Shod in loosely fitting button-ups, goatee flowing in the wind of his quick pace, fitted in an English cap, and always gripping a Red Bull, he rode a motorcycle and didn't own a phone or laptop. God bless him, you can imagine he had some opinions.
To make a long list of references shorter, everyone who made a deep impact on me stated or did something controversial boldly because they believe the truth of it. Even if I disagree, their ideas could at least act as a foil to my own. They put forward their thoughts so eloquently and powerfully that I’m made to reconcile my position with theirs.
I want to do that for other people, but I don’t want to make a controversial statement for its own sake. That makes me no better than the gluttonous monstrosities of modern journalism begging for seconds of attention, feeding the gullet of Google AdSense. In fact, I think this propensity misleads a great many philosophers away from the truth.
C.S. Lewis gives unpacks this source of pride in many places, best of all in The Great Divorce.
The “Episcopal Ghost”
Lewis, an Oxford don and member of the elite in academia explicated the sin of the pretentious flavor of Pride very well. He probably looked caricatures of it in the eye every day in the English department at Oxford in the 1940s-50s. Undoubtedly, Lewis glimpsed the sin in the mirror once or twice, and probably all the time before he became a Christian (see Surprised by Joy).
A nameless character appears in The Great Divorce, called the “episcopal ghost.” He’s traveled from hell (the “grey town”) to heaven and is speaking with a Christian friend named “Dick,” robed in bright white glory. The episcopal ghost debates the Christian friend about progressive theological interpretations of the “spirituality” of the concept of hell. The ghost can’t bring himself to narrow his views down to the obvious truth of orthodox claims about heaven and hell. The resplendent Christian man is exasperated by his lost friend. Even with his feet in heaven and his eyes having literally seen hell, he won’t give up the intellectual gymnastics to theorize and endlessly speculate about theology. Dick explains that his friend’s academic curiosity will be satisfied in Christ, that he will drink fully from The Truth–his thirst finally quenched.
The Ghost responds,
"Well, really, you know, I am not aware of a thirst for some ready-made truth which puts an end to intellectual activity in the way you seem to be describing. Will [God] leave me the free play of Mind, Dick? I must insist on that, you know.” (Lewis, 41)
The Ghost’s idolatrous, intellectual pride bars him from entering God’s kingdom.
A frightening thought. Oh God, forgive me of my pride!
I think I’d just like to uphold my convictions, whether they make enemies all around me or just with the world and the “principalities.”
I’d like to convict and be convicted by the Truth. I’d like to be less afraid of offending (without sacrificing graciousness). We've failed the moment we make enemies not because of our ideas but because of our ungraciousness.
Want a modern example of this done well? Josh Porter, also known as “Josh Dies,” does an excellent job of graciously (yet somehow bitingly) putting forward controversial convictions. I hope Death to Deconstruction is just one of many popular books to come. A once punk-rock artist now teaching pastor and author, his faith is deep and complex.
What’s the takeaway here?
Stating something strongly (and graciously) such that it offends the sensibilities of others does not always do them a disservice.
Many have done a service to me by stating their ideas like that.
That’s probably obvious to most, especially to older readers, but it’s something that I’m personally still coming to grips with.