‘Escape from Reason’ in 7 minutes Submitted by Henry Vyner-Brooks on Mon, 21/10/2013

 ‘Escape from Reason’ in 7 minutes

Submitted by Henry Vyner-Brooks on Mon, 21/10/2013 – 22:14

Escape from Reason (in 7 minutes)

Summary of Francis Schaeffer’s classic book by Henry Vyner-Brooks

This book became something of a classic in its day, and students should be encouraged to dialogue it even now – or perhaps especially now. Some thought it was a reworking of Dutch Philosopher Herman Dooyeweerd’s ‘Twilight of Western Civilisation’, but Schaeffer said that it was not, that this was his own thesis, though no doubt he was influenced by his friend Hans Rookmaaker who taught with and admired Dooyeweerd and his work. I found this helped me a great deal, and though the scholarship may not be totally sound (see my footnote with R.C. Sproul’s comments), and probably not at all helped by my hatched job in this summary, it is nevertheless really very helpful, short book to buy and enjoy.

  1. Thomas Aquinas opened the discussion of, or perhaps we should say, the division between Grace over Nature. Grace is the collective word he used to describe all things of the spiritual realm; prayer, priesthood, preaching, heaven, angels etc. Nature was the word he used to sum up all that was physical, of this world; us, our work, our sex lives, our dinners, our bodies, things outside of ecclesiastical existence.
  2. This artificial division was first given by the Greeks, and later articulated greatly by Plato and Aristotle (who, incidentally passed it on through Islamic and Christian Sciencific writing).
  3. Aquinas theorised that there were links between Nature and Grace, but with what justification could his scholastic construct give to support the hunch?
  4. From here on in the centuries would see a great struggle between the supposedly upper realm of Grace (ie those things of heaven and spiritual nature) and the lower realm of Nature (those things of earth and flesh), forever trying to unite these two seemingly incompatible elements whose dividing lines we see even now ruuning through every society, every enterprise, and even our own souls.
  5. Aquinas’ blunder was that he believed that even though man’s will was fallen, that his intellect was left untouched by the fall. (*This might be too simplistic an analysis, see comments by R. C. Sproul in the footnotes.)
  6. This is why he believed that an autonomous science (what they called Natural theology) could be studied independent of the scriptures and independantly arrive at the truth. for when you separate elements of the Nature (and all its particulars, like work, washing up and science) from those unseen spiritual things labelled Grace, you make a de-sacralised Frankenstein of ordinary things. The supposedly lower things are cut off from the whole, they become ugly, unclean, without meaning. The great struggle then (as now with the modern evolutionist who has also bought into this dicotomy) is to escape the pointlessness of everyday life; as nihilism beckons at every corner.
  7. The Arts: When his contemporaries Cimabue and Giotto started to paint nature as nature and not just symbolic elements we can see similar understandings permeating the arts. It also influenced the writing of Dante, Boccaccio and Petrarch. Petrarch started a neo-platonic school in Florence and a century later Platonism was the dominant philosophical force in that city.
  8. Women and freedom – In his 1860 book ‘The Civilisation of the Renaissance in Italy,’ Jacob Burckhardt goes to great lengths to show that the type of freedom experienced by women was at the expense of morality. The Lyric Poets had given Renaissance man that romantic notion of ideal love but the novelists and comic poets of the day affirmed the sensuality of love, often opting for straight pornography. This duality (again of Nature and Grace where it affects relationships) is seen somewhat in Dante, who fell into an idealized love at first sight with one woman (whom he loved all his life thereafter,) but then married and fathered children with another.
  9. We can see two centuries later that Leonardo da Vinci was also victim of these false ‘Aquinas-Greek’ divisions within reality. The great 20th century Italian philosopher Giovanni Gentile said that Leonardo died in despondency because he could not (through his art or mathematics) form a unity between Grace and Nature; the Universal and the Particulars, what is now called a unified field of knowledge.
  10. What the bible gives is not exhaustive truth per se but what Schaeffer began to call, ‘true truth’; that is, it gives statements about the nature of God, of man, of sin, and an account of what it calls creation. If these are true and accepted, then a man has a perfectly consistent understanding of both Grace and Nature. The God who actually exists just happens to be a God that even in himself perfectly demonstrates the bridge between Grace and Nature, between the universal and the particular, for this God is both personal and infinite. Without this unlikely combination there would be no answer. And so it is the biblically minded man, not the modern or post-modern man, who has found the link between these two realms and so has a unified field of knowledge. He did not get to this place on his own, by rationalism but by revelation.
  11. Aquinas and scholasticism established a tragectory of thought that would inadvertently unleash an autonomous and seductive humanism. But in reality there is, not was ever, any part of the world that was ever autonomous from God, indeed there was no part of fallen man that was not in some way fallen; that in him ‘that is his flesh there dwelleth no good thing’. But far from binding the hands of artists and scientists, this correct view gave them freedom to be channelled within set boundaries.
  12. Stagnation of autonomous humanism; For those who tried to set up their shop without a biblical unity, there was a different story. A river without banks becomes a swamp and so the familiar pattern of stagnation and meaninglessness permeated the history of art, literature and philosophy after this time. It would start by the triumphal realm of nature swallowing up the realm of grace (i.e. science trumping and demystifying theological suppositions), which we might see as the long march of modernity. One can remember the words of T.H. Huxley here as he says something like, ‘in any encounter you may mention between religion and science, I have never known anything but that religion has been defeated.’
  13. The enlightenment rephrased a secularised concept of grace to something more immediate; something they called (and we call) freedom. For now, in many of their minds at least, there was no definite God, for them nature had eaten up grace altogether. And yet, as histoy shows, no man can live without at least definition for that ‘eternity in their hearts’ talked of in the bible. Man’s great fear of ‘non-being’ is a tell tale sign of this, but in truth he can never be nothing, and therein is perhaps both his tragedy but also where we are apt to see his uniqueness and beauty – if we know how to read it. Zen Buddism says that‘man enters the water and causes no ripple’ but the bible says he causes ripples that never end.
  14. But back to this point of a change from Grace to freedom or Liberty. The 18th century is so shot through with this that the notion of freedom, whether from monarchy or tyranny or superstitions would be the watchword, even in biblical circles. The American patriot Henry Martin in his famous ‘give me liberty or give me death’ speech, called their quest, one of sacred liberty. In one sense we can see between the Renaissance and our own time, the clash between two versions of freedom, that of freedom from God or freedom from sin. If a man allowed God to free him from sin, he could have freedom elsewhere too. To acccept the infinite-yet-personal God as the the true God is to accept his definition of us and the world in which we lived. That we are not just part of the machine of nature, you were endowed with inalienable dignity and privilege over creation as stewards, as sons and daughters. It is in this spirit that Christianity gave the world the scientific revolution.
  15. J. Robert Oppenheimer was not a Christian but he said that Christianity was needed to birth modern science. Francis Bacon (1561-1626) in his book Novum Organum Scientiarum said, ‘man by the fall fell at the same time from his state of innocence and from his dominion over nature. Both of these losses, however, can even in this life be in some part repaired; the former by religion and faith, the latter by the arts and sciences.’
  16. But then having made the conquest and subsequently explored the supposed freedoms that the autonomy finally gave men, it became apparent that a Promethean fire that had been unleashed. The artists of the twentieth century like Picasso and Gauguin were not slow to despair as Leonardo had four centuries before. Could they ever escape what Timothy Leary called this ‘fake-prop-set world’? Bernstein tried to do something similar with his Kaddish symphony, that is help people access the now lost area we have called grace and liberty. If this sounds strange then do not forget that men will try almost anything to escape the despair and deadness of living with the worldview as modern men have made it, (what Pink floyd calls being ‘comfortably numb’). Some like writers Henry Martin and Terry Southern tried to even use Pornographic writing to shake men out of that deadness, in the hopes that they could get ‘toward the ethics of a golden age’.
  17. The Theatre of the Absurb was another contender, their method was to do anything in the first place to wake up the audience from their deadness, and then when they had your full attention they would shout it in anyway possible, ‘there is nothing their you bourgeois twit!’ After that you would be fed some mystic mumbo Jumbo; whether it was watered down Marcel Duchamp, or psychedelic music or similar.
  18. And so you can see the mess we are in, for modern man did not just kill God for themselves and their children, no, that would be too simple. For when we shut out God we also lost the basis for love (swallowed by modern psychology), morality (swallowed by evolution), freedom (swallowed by the social sciences), significance or any other dignity once assumed for man. Even the basis for establishing knowledge (what is called epistemology) was now eroded. How could we even know whether anything was true or false, and even if we did why would that matter now we were just meat computers, cosmic blips in a deterministic machine called planet earth?
  19. The Existentialists – These are the poets, philosophers and theologians who articulated a new way for men to escape the despair of modernity. Some would claim that it started with Kierdegard, a young Christian Dane who, while revolting against the state church of his day, emphasized the need for personal, existential, experiential religion, much like the pietist and holiness movements had done. Though his opening thrust would be taken on by theologians of the twentieth century like Karl Barth or Tillich, it is important to see that their pursuit of a unity of knowledge was not always a biblical one. Barth for example would say that the Bible was not true at various points but that did not matter for it was meant to be spiritual truth or religious truth (not necessarily historic or scientific truth). But this compromise with, what we have called ‘Nature’, was to operate within a flawed framework. (Schaeffer visited Barth in Lausanne, and carried on a correspondence with him, which was quite bitter from Barth’s final letter.) The Christian existentialist does not have a biblical unity based on revelation. It is a vegetarian substitute for biblical truth.. T.H. Huxley prophesied in 1890 that there would come a time when Christians would remove all content from their faith and that then, ‘no longer in contact with truth of any kind; faith stands now and forever proudly inaccessible from the attacks from the infidel.’
  20. The world of secular philosophers were also keen to grasp at these last straws too offered by the existentialist approach. Sartre admitted that all was meaningless and so the great object for a man must therefore be to, by an act of the will, to authenticate himself. By asserting your will in a meaningless world there was value for Sartre although he was not able to provide a reason why that act of will should not be wicked as well as good. Jaspers was a psychologist said that all that was really left for you authenticating your existence was, what he called, ‘the final experience’. This experience could not be predicted or planned, it just came. Some who tried suicide, others drugs. Aldous Huxley made a contribution here writing of the ‘first order experience’ where he said we could initiate the experience by using LSD, which many did.
  21. If God is dead, then man is dead too. The modern materialist has only achieved unity (if unity you can call it, which it is not) by allowing mere nature to swallow up everything that was once unique and noble in man. The half hearted rebellion of post-modernity against this bleak mindset was essentially a non-rational backing-away from the inevitable precipice offered to men by an autonomous rationality. This they did after seeing the end game in the early 20th century; the death camps, the gulag, the perfect scientific dictatorships, the new ethics in action – 100 million dead from Communism alone, another 60 million because of Nazism. Here was the cold reality of a world without God, without absolutes, where the fit survive, where might is right. After the wars, eugenics and the other ugly realities of rational science were played down, but the suppositions kept. In this way I think that the wars were a wake up call to examine the Enlightenment foundations of late modern civilization but few were prepared to listen. Some perhaps have backed away from the precipice all the way to God in repentance but the mass still hovered, their heads telling them to obey Nietzsche and their hearts irrationally clinging to an empty version of Christianity, or their drugs, dream catchers and crystals.

* Footnote The theologian R. C. Sproul comments on the above, ‘Thomas Aquinas responded to the Aristotelianism of the medieval Muslim philosophers by replacing double truths with the concept of mixed articles, distinguishing nature and grace (not dividing them, as many of his critics allege). Aquinas said that there are certain truths that can be known through special revelation that are not discerned from investigation of the natural world, while at the same time there are certain truths learned from the study of nature that are not found, for example, in the Bible. One does not find the circulatory system of the human body clearly set forth in Scripture. What Aquinas was saying was that there are certain truths that are mixed articles, truths that can be known either from the Bible or by a study of nature. Among those mixed articles, he included the knowledge of the existence of a Creator.


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