Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Francis Schaeffer's Misplaced Antagonism

A good friend of mine, an Evangelical, lent me his VHS tapes of Francis A. Schaeffer's How Should We Then Live?.

I got a lot out of the tapes. Dr. Schaeffer's diagnosis of modern society's illness is largely correct: humanism's denial of the God-given order of the universe has indeed led to despair in the power of reason as a guide to truth and happiness. Modern man has no recourse but "flight to non-reason."

After watching all ten episodes twice, some aspects of Dr. Schaeffer's outlook still don't seem to quite fit together. The tragedy is that he fails to recognize St. Thomas Aquinas as a partner in demonstrating the reasonableness of the Christian Faith.

Dr. Schaeffer's mistake is to attribute the unraveling of the "Christian consensus" to Aquinas's philosophy and theology. He charges that Aquinas "opened the flood gates" to humanism. To a limited extent, Schaeffer is correct: Aquinas helped paved the way for intellectual inquiry and for the modern academy, which have in a very general sense led to modern humanism—that's not saying much, though: in the same general sense the invention of movable type paved the way for pornographic novels.

In particular Schaeffer charges that Aquinas taught that while the Fall damaged the human will, the intellect escaped unscathed. It's difficult to know why Schaeffer would believe this, let alone teach it: Aquinas is the standard reference for Catholic theology, and Catholic Christians have always believed the Fall's damage to the intellect. Every Catholic schoolkid knows (or used to know before the post-Conciliar crisis of catechesis) the Catechism answer of the effects of Original Sin:

Our nature was corrupted by the sin of our first parents, which darkened our understanding, weakened our will, and left in us a strong inclination to evil. (Baltimore Catechism, no. 2, q. 46)

Aquinas himself quite clearly teaches in the Summa that the intellect also suffered damage:

Accordingly these are the four wounds inflicted on the whole of human nature as a result of our first parent's sin. But since the inclination to the good of virtue is diminished in each individual on account of actual sin, as was explained above (1, 2), these four wounds are also the result of other sins, in so far as, through sin, the reason is obscured, especially in practical matters, the will hardened to evil, good actions become more difficult and concupiscence more impetuous. (ST I-II 85.1.3)

Even more peculiar is Schaeffer's insistence that Aristotle and Aquinas's focus on particular things at the expense of universals robbed the cosmos of meaning, and hindered man's ability to discover "how we should then live." When one considers that it is the disciples of Aristotle, including Aquinas and his disciples, who have been the strongest champions of natural law, Schaeffer's position appears untenable. Contrary to Schaeffer's claim, the ability of the intellect to formulate universals from sensible particulars is the cornerstone of Aristotelian philosophy.

Schaeffer is confusing Aquinas with the late Scholastics. In reality, it was these late Scholastics or nominalists who shattered the world into particulars.1 Nominalism says that the group of things I call "cats," for example, are simply a class of things the mind groups together, but that these things possess no common essence: in other words that since the intellect cannot access essences, names are simply conventions: labels lacking any real connection to essences. William Ockham in particular was notorious for exalting the power of the human will over the intellect. Ockham's voluntarism destroys any possibility of the intellect discovering the common essences of sensible things.

Schaeffer protests Aquinas's commandeering of Aristotle's pagan philosophy and his protest is not without merit: for a Christian, non-Christian reasoning is suspect, and at very least requires some purification. Aristotle's distinction is that he begins from universally accessible sensible reality and his reasoning from these dependable premises is quite sound (as a close examination proves). That Aquinas was able to defend Christian truth with Aristotle shows his general compatibility with Christian thought. Not that it is Schaeffer's position, but to deny absolutely the possibility of using non-Christian philosophy for Christian ends would be a radical disbelief in reason indeed—a decided "flight to non-reason."

Some Christians prefer to base their reasoning exclusively on revelation. This is a fine tact among believers (i.e., doing theology). The problem is that such arguments have no traction with non-believers, of which there are many in our pluralistic society. To be persuasive, public reasoning has to be based on public facts available to everyone, whereas every Christian acknowledges that faith is a gift (not given to everyone). To a non-believer, the explanation "because it's in the Bible" sounds little better than "because I said so" (the humanist position). Meanwhile, the facts of nature, such as the structure of the human person and the human family, are universally accessible, as well as agreeable to Biblical morality. This is why the people of the world could agree on the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights—a very sane document, despite the typical insanity of the body to which it is connected. The greatest ally of secular humanism is the tendency to forget our common human nature, not to mention the tendency of many right-thinking people to neutralize the power of their own arguments by insisting that all reasoning begin from revelation.

So, it's a shame that Francis Schaeffer insisted on disagreeing with Thomas Aquinas, who should be his natural ally. When allies refuse to work together their cause is necessarily weakened.


1. The major complication of modern thought is that the philosophy of many of the progenitors of modern science (like Buridan and Oresme) suffered from nominalism.

John Paul II, Faith and Reason (Encyclical Letter, September 15, 1998). "Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth—in a word, to know himself—so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves."

Louis Bouyer, The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism trans. A.V. Littledale (Westminster, Maryland: The Newman Press, 1957). Among its many virtues, this book contains a penetrating analysis of the surprising relationship between late Scholasticism and the thought of the Protestant Reformers.


Holopupenko said...

     Excellent post and observations! Because of our self-centeredness, “divide and conquer” is one of Satan’s easiest weapons to deploy. Schaeffer’s anti-Catholic baggage got the better of him… and not only regarding St. Thomas. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why his son, Frankie, became and Eastern Orthodox Christian.

Lawrence Gage said...

Certainly, Schaeffer had his blind spots, but I like to concentrate on his positive points: it's clear that he was a genuinely Godly man, and that he generally had a good instinct about the need for reason to govern our lives. An article in the latest issue of Touchstone mentions the role of his book in mobilizing Evangelicals against abortion.

I count his son's return to a Church with Apostolic succession a credit to the formation his father imparted. Schaeffer was unable to go there himself: as so often happens, those raised in a foreign land, like Moses, are unable to enter the Promised Land to which they have led their children.


Holopupenko said...

     Yes, I agree... that was the point of my raising the "divide and conquer" thing: together would clearly have been been better than separately. When we're separated, we tend to focus upon negative differences rather than common positive aspects... hence the blame game, hence the vicious circle of "divide and conquer." Of course the latter should not be elevated to an unquestionable maxim because important theological issues remain. My sense (for what it's worth) is that it's easier to peer into the underlying common understandings even in theologically-difficult issues if we don't succumb to the "divide and conquer."