Monday, December 10, 2018

Roads Not Taken

Last year, I read a book that had a profound impact on me.  The Way of a Pilgrim was written by an anonymous Christian who travelled through mid-nineteenth-century Russia and Siberia, visiting the monasteries and shrines of the saints while learning to “pray without ceasing.”

The author is introduced to the spiritual discipline known as the Jesus Prayer – “Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me” – and he recites that prayer thousands of times daily during his travels.
I had a vague recollection of a reference to The Way of a Pilgrim in a book I’d read 40 plus years ago - J. D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey.  Franny was a disillusioned college student, bored with almost everyone and everything in her life:

“You take a look around your college campus, and the world, and politics, and one season of summer stock, and you listen to the conversation of a bunch of nitwit college students, and you decide that everything’s ego, ego, ego, and the only intelligent thing for a girl to do is to lie around and shave her head and say the Jesus Prayer and beg God for a little mystical experience that’ll make her nice and happy. […] You keep talking about ego. My God, it would take Christ himself to decide what’s ego and what isn’t. This is God’s universe, buddy, not yours, and he has the final say about what’s ego and what isn’t….”

Anyhow, the Jesus Prayer was a significant part of the story, and when I read Salinger’s work so long ago, it piqued my curiosity.  But in that time, actually obtaining a copy of The Way of a Pilgrim would have been no simple matter.

I do wonder how differently my life might have unfolded had I read the book back then.  But I realize, too, that it might not have affected me in 1974 the way it did in 2017.

Later in the 1970s I had a fleeting encounter with another book that has found its way back into my life.  Mention Francis Schaeffer today, and I suspect few people would know who you are talking about.  Forty years ago, he was best known for his book and film series, How Should We Then Live?  With his unruly longish hair, chin beard, and lederhosen, Schaeffer was a visible contrast to other well-known Evangelicals of his day. 

Schaeffer (1912 – 1984) was an American Evangelical Christian theologian who established the L’Abri Community in Switzerland in 1955.  Francis and his wife Edith sought to "demonstrate the existence of God" without a detailed plan of action.  They opened their alpine home as a ministry to curious travellers and as a forum to discuss philosophical and religious beliefs.     

A friend loaned me a copy of Schaeffer’s book, and I recall how it made me feel a bit uncomfortable.  The truths of the book were presented with great clarity, but posed too much of a threat to the liberal, “sophisticated” affectations to which I clung in those days.  I was knee deep in the “Counterculture” and was subscribing to the prevalent theory that Christianity was a tool of the corrupt and repressive “Establishment.” 

Ah yes, the heady days of the late 60s and early 70s. 

My little clique of backwater “intellectuals” loved to share our enthusiasms, crazy schemes, and bad poems.  We’d go to Fellini movies in Charlotte and eat moussaka at a Greek restaurant on Elizabeth Avenue.  Once, we conspired to kidnap our beloved Kurt Vonnegut, so that we could spend a weekend with him – to find out what made him tick.  And it was our dream to do like Jack Kerouac – or was it Gary Snyder? – and spend a whole summer stationed in a forest fire lookout tower. 

Poetry, of a sort, had a place in pop culture back then, even it was the schmaltzy, sappy stuff by raspy-voiced Rod McKuen. Those garish little blue and orange books – Stanyan Street and Other Sorrows, and Listen to the Warm – were as ubiquitous as scented candles and decoupage wall art.

McKuen must have been the best-selling poet in America during the second half of the twentieth century, much to the chagrin of the self-annointed “serious” poets.

Richard Bach’s literary sensation, Jonathan Livingston Seagull, was a big deal in 1970.  And Annie Dillard gave us a new sort of book in 1974 with Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.  Popular culture of that era brought a multitude of "new" ideas in a variety of new packages 

By the early 1970s, I had broken from my mainstream Protestant upbringing and explored all manner of “new thought.”  The Tao Te Ching, the I Ching, Alan Watts,  Aldous Huxley, Thomas Merton, Jiddu Krishnamurti, Meher Baba.  I signed up for a mail order study course from Paramahansa Yogananda’s Self Realization Fellowship.

Psychology was big back then.  Self-help books were hitting their stride - remember I’m OK, You’re OK?  The magazine, Psychology Today, was wildly popular.  I filled pages of my journal with passages from Fritz Perls, the Gestalt psychologist probably best known for this cringeworthy “Gestalt Prayer”:

I do my thing and you do your thing.
I am not in this world to live up to your expectations,
And you are not in this world to live up to mine.
You are you, and I am I,
and if by chance we find each other, it's beautiful.
If not, it can't be helped.
(Fritz Perls, "Gestalt Therapy Verbatim", 1969)

I can only hope that the “Perls” of wisdom I transcribed into my journal were better than this so-called “prayer.”  But I doubt it. 

Looking back from this point in my life, I regret the decades spent travelling down the trendy New Age trails that I started upon in the 1970s.  And now, upon revisiting Schaeffer’s How Should We Then Live? I regret not taking the road that he pointed out.

I must confess that I was slightly underwhelmed when I returned to the book a few months ago, after the long lapse of time.  The book is so packed with cultural references that his primary themes are not immediately obvious.

Fortunately, the 10-part documentary series of How Should We Then Live? (released in 1977) is easy to find on Youtube.  It might be the best starting point for most people.  I understand that it was conceived in part as a response to Kenneth Clark’s documentary series, Civilisation. 

How Should We Then Live? is subtitled “The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture.”  One advantage of the video version is being able to view the paintings, sculpture and architecture that Schaeffer discusses.  Another advantage is to observe the quiet passion with which Schaeffer builds his case.   (One other point adds to the appeal for me.  At the time he narrated the video series, Francis Schaeffer was precisely the same age that I am today.)

I have read or browsed quite a few books on the collapse of Western Civilization, but none compare to Schaeffer's.  Early in the documentary series, I was struck by how well it holds up for something released in 1977.   He did not claim to be an academic or a theological, but he was someone who had a capacity for learning from history and learning from countless hours of conversations with the many "seekers" who visited L'abri.

Schaeffer argued that we cannot understand how we should live today unless we understand the intellectual and cultural forces that brought us to this day.  He frames his survey of Western thought as an ongoing struggle between two worldviews:  the Christian worldview and the humanist worldview.  In Schaeffer’s words:

It is important to realize what a difference a people’s world view makes in their strength as they are exposed to the pressure of life. That it was the Christians who were able to resist religious mixtures, syncretism, and the effects of the weakness of Roman culture speaks of the strength of the Christian world view. This strength rested on God’s being an infinite-personal God and his speaking in the Old Testament, in the life and teaching of Jesus Christ, and in the gradually growing New Testament. He had spoken in ways people could understand. Thus the Christians not only had knowledge about the universe and mankind that people cannot find out by themselves, but they had absolute, universal values by which to live and by which to judge the society and the political state in which they live.

Humanism has taken various forms over the past centuries.  Scholars during the Renaissance idealized the classical era:

These paid men of letters translated Latin, wrote speeches, and acted as secretaries...Their humanism meant, first of all, a veneration for everything ancient and especially the writings of the Greek and Roman age. Although this past age did include the early Christian church, it became increasingly clear that the sort of human autonomy that many of the Renaissance humanists had in mind referred exclusively to the non-Christian Greco-Roman world. Thus Renaissance humanism steadily evolved toward modern humanism—a value system rooted in the belief that man is his own measure, that man is autonomous, totally independent.

Schaeffer examined how this idea resurfaced in the sciences during the 19th century, when it was assumed that the human mind or soul is to be explained on the basis of materialism:

When psychology and social science were made a part of a closed cause-and-effect system, along with physics, astronomy and chemistry, it was not only God who died.  Man died. And within this framework love died.  There is no place for love in a totally closed cause-and-effect system.  There is no place for morals in a totally closed cause-and-effect system.  There is no place for the freedom of people in a totally closed cause-and-effect system. Man becomes a zero.   People and all they do become only a part of the machinery.

The final episode of the video series, How Should We Then Live?, is stunning.  In his summation, Schaeffer anticipated where humanist thinking would lead.  What he foretold in 1977 might have seemed unduly pessimistic or even alarmist.  But now in 2018, immersed in the culture that Schaeffer saw coming, I recognize how very wise he was.  Today, political correctness is a capricious and arbitrary form of  tyranny.  Virtual is better than real.  Transhumanism is cool.  Google knows more about you than any human companion ever will. 

Man no longer sees himself as qualitatively different from non-man. The Christian consensus gave a basis for people being unique, as made in the image of God, but this has largely been thrown away….For a long time…people have been taught that truth as objective truth does not exists.  All morals and laws are seen as relative…. 

If there are no absolutes by which to judge society, then society is absolute.

Schaeffer closed the video series, and the book, with these words:

In about A.D. 60, a Jew who was a Christian and who also knew the Greek and Roman thinking of his day wrote a letter to those who lived in Rome. Previously, he had said the same things to Greek thinkers while speaking on Mars Hill in Athens. He had spoken with the Acropolis above him and the ancient marketplace below him, in the place where the thinkers of Athens met for discussion. A plaque marks that spot today and gives his talk in the common Greek spoken in his day. He was interrupted in his talk in Athens, but his Letter to the Romans gives us without interruption what he had to say to the thinking people of that period.

He said that the integration points of the Greek and Roman world view were not enough to answer the questions posed either by the existence of the universe and its form, or by the uniqueness of man. 

He said that they deserved judgment because they knew that they did not have an adequate answer to the questions raised by the universe or by the existence of man, and yet they refused, they suppressed, that which is the answer. To quote his letter:

“The retribution of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness. Because that which is known of God is evident within them [that is, the uniqueness of man in contrast to non-man], for God made it evident to them. For the invisible things of him since the creation of the world are clearly seen, being perceived by the things that are made [that is, the existence of the universe and its form], even his eternal power and divinity; so that they are without excuse.” [Roman 1:18ff.]

Here he is saying that the universe and its form and the mannishness of man speak the same truth that the Bible gives in greater detail. That this God exists and that he has not been silent but has spoken to people in the Bible and through Christ was the basis for the return to a more fully biblical Christianity in the days of the Reformers. It was a message of the possibility that people could return to God on the basis of the death of Christ alone. But with it came many other realities, including form and freedom in the culture and society built on that more biblical Christianity. The freedom brought forth was titanic, and yet, with the forms given in the Scripture, the freedoms did not lead to chaos. 

And it is this which can give us hope for the future. It is either this or an imposed order.

As I have said in the first chapter, people function on the basis of their world view more consistently than even they themselves may realize. The problem is not outward things. The problem is having, and then acting upon, the right world view — the world view which gives men and women the truth of what is.

Really, I’m not able to give Schaeffer’s work the review that it deserves.  What he communicates in the five hours of his documentary is breathtaking.  I had my forty years “wandering in the wilderness” after my first fleeting exposure to (and dismissal of ) How Should We Then Live? My hope is that no one else waits that long to give Schaeffer a fair hearing.  

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A link to a site with notes on How Should We Then Live? and the Youtube videos of the series:

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