By: Francis Shaeffer
Published: 1968, 1982
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I believe one of the most important Christian philosophical writings from the twentieth century is “The God Who is There” by Francis Schaeffer. In his book, which is almost 50 years old, Schaeffer discusses recent cultural shifts and the effects these changes have had on people’s belief systems. These ideas emerge first in the areas of philosophy, art, music, and theology; from there, these beliefs permeate popular culture and thinking. Schaeffer describes this transition as one replete with nihilism, a rejection of absolutes, and moral relativism.
Schaeffer contends that this transition began in Europe and later manifested itself in the United States. The transition has been gradual, and people in the United States have been experiencing changes for approximately the past eighty years. Today, the transition has almost completely set in, and younger people are accepting these beliefs as culturally normative. As a result, we are observing a culture in which many people have adopted a belief system that cannot account for meaning; these same people have been developing these beliefs in contrast to a predominate culture which does allow for meaning. Consequently, these ideas have been buffered from their logical consequences. As these new beliefs become culturally normative, a foundation of meaning will swept out from underneath them, and the decline of culture may accelerate unless people begin thinking differently.
Biblical Christianity has always been counter-cultural. Schaeffer describes how orthodox Christianity remains as fixed truth in a shifting culture. Christianity stands in opposition to meaninglessness; belief systems which do not allow for a synthesis of meaning must borrow these ends from others belief systems in order to hold together. Light is meant to illuminate darkness, and beliefs about meaning have theological, political, and cultural consequences.
Readers of Schaeffer will want to take some time to understand how he defines several terms. His use of the terms ‘rationalism’, ‘antithesis’, and ‘dialectical method’ is slightly different than usually understood. Some readers have dismissed Schaeffer for these reasons; however, Schaeffer details his reasons for providing nuanced definitions and he applies them consistently.
As much as I have enjoyed reading this book multiple times, I understand that not all readers will find it as engaging as I do. Schaeffer’s detailed discussion of philosophy, art, and music is longer than many people are interested in reading. In this light, Ravi Zacharias’ assessment of Schaeffer is worth mentioning, “Few people deserve the accolade of being ‘prophetic.’ Among these few, Francis Schaeffer is unquestionably one. Virtually every social, moral or philosophical struggle that we face today was either addressed or envisioned by him.” Even though some will think Schaeffer’s cultural analysis is a bit antiquated, I believe that is the crux of the issue: the situation he describes is the challenge of our day since the cultural transition has become set.
We can read Schaeffer to understand how our culture got to the place it is today; doing so becomes more than an academic exercise when we understand that how we engage people about truth and meaning must be framed in the terms they use to understand these issues. We face the challenge of sharing the truth, when many believe there are numerous truths or simply dismiss the concept of absolutes out of hand. As cultural norms continue to shift, we must engage our culture on its own terms while remaining faithful to the truth which does not shift.