The Unwasted Life

Francis A. Schaeffer was born 100 years ago today (Jan. 30, 1912). He died in 1984. In 1974 he wrote this in his book No Little People:

As I see it, the Christian life must be comprised of three concentric circles, each of which must be kept in its proper place.

In the outer circle must be the correct theological position, true biblical orthodoxy and the purity of the visible church. This is first, but if that is all there is, it is just one more seedbed for spiritual pride.

In the second circle must be good intellectual training and comprehension of our own generation. But having only this leads to intellectualism and again provides a seedbed for pride.

In the inner circle must be the humble heart — the love of God, the devotional attitude toward God. There must be the daily practice of the reality of the God whom we know is there.

These three circles must be properly established, emphasized and related to each other. At the center must be kept a living relationship to the God we know exists. When each of these three circles is established in its proper place, there will be tongues of fire and the power of the Holy Spirit. Then, at the end of my life, when I look back over my work since I have been a Christian, I will see that I have not wasted my life.

Godless Impatience

One of the more thoughtful books I’ve read in the past couple of years is Craig M. Gay’s, The Way of the (Modern) World: Or, Why It’s Tempting to Live As If God Doesn’t Exist (Eerdmans, 1998). It’s a book about worldliness, and by worldliness the author means “an interpretation of reality that essentially excludes the reality of God from the business of life” (4). He fills out this definition as he exposes many of the sometimes subtle symptoms of worldliness that emerge in our contemporary culture, developing his book around five of the most prominent symptoms.

Here I’ll try to boil them down as best as I can:

  1. Control–Following in the footsteps of Postman and Ellul, Gay argues that man seeks to control every dimension of his world through technology, and never more so is this the case than today. On one hand this leads to many helpful and useful advances, on the other hand it leads to…
  2. Secularism—The aspirations of the modern man to this technological control of the world leave less and less room for any god, only the “self-defining self.” God—if ever referenced at all—becomes a “god of the gaps,” a god whose necessity is limited to the areas of life that remain outside our control. We have technology for the rest of life. Which leads to…
  3. Individualism—The forces of control and secularity combine to encourage individualism, a fix-it-yourself mentality that breaks apart personal relationships and community. Which leads to…
  4. Anxiety—Man becomes an individualized self, a responsibility that we are ill suited to carry. “The assumption of godlike responsibilities [in seeking to control our lives by ourselves] has turned out to be a heavy burden and that we have become increasingly anxious beneath the weight of this burden” (p. 308). Which leads to…
  5. Impatience—Combine control, secularity, individualism, and the anxiety from these godlike responsibilities and you end up with “what is possibly the master theme of modernity, and now of ‘postmodernity’: that of impatience” (p. 308).

In light of these symptoms, believers are faced with snowballing implications.

As Christians, we are called to cultivate an eschatological worldview of hope demonstrated in our spiritual disciplines of waiting and watching. This hope is undercut by modern forms worldliness. For example, instead of cultivating hope in eternal promises of God we are easy snookered by wave after wave of immediate current events. “By completely relativizing eternity over and against the events of the day, or week, journalism renders such things as character, perseverance, fidelity, and hope largely meaningless” (201).

According to Gay, when you put together all these modern symptoms of worldliness you arrive at “anxious impatience.” Gay writes:

…anxious impatience is evident in virtually all aspects of modern social and cultural existence, and not least in the increasingly frantic pace with which so much of life is carried on today. It is largely by reason of impatient frustration, after all, that we have been persuaded to try to perform the functions of the hidden—and, indeed, seemingly absent—God.

“God is either unwilling or incapable of helping us,” we say in effect, “therefore we have no choice but to help ourselves, to take matters into our own hands, and to try to engineer a habitable environment for ourselves.” Ironically, it is this same anxious impatience that has consequently moved us to surrender ourselves so naively to the dehumanizing techniques of the modern world.

Indeed, it is anxious haste that has incited us to mortgage ourselves to technical rationality for the sake of its promise of control. “After we have taken control of the world,” so we tell ourselves, implying that taking control of the world must somehow enable us to take control of ourselves, “then we will discover how to be human persons again.” But the horizon keeps receding, and we always seem to be waiting for the promised control to be established.

The longer we are forced to wait, however, the more anxious we become; and the more anxious we become, the more prone we are to placing what little hope we have left into the possibility of technical-rational control, and thus to giving ourselves over to dehumanizing modern systems; and so forth. It is an unfortunately vicious cycle.

Modern secular society is thus a culture of anxious impatience, a culture in which so much stress has been placed upon human abilities and human agency that the modern mind has effectively lost the ability to trust anything, or more importantly anyone, else. (310–311; his eph.)

That point is worth our reflection, as are each of his symptoms of modern worldliness summarized earlier.

Bottom line: if you’re looking for a book that addresses the influence of technology, the consequences of individualism, secularism, and all the other facets of worldliness outlined earlier, I would recommend The Way of the (Modern) World. Although the book is slightly dated, it also provides a number of timeless biblical principles to help us evaluate our culture and its influence on our soul and upon the Church.

“Living in but not of the modern world, must mean, at the very least, living patiently and expectantly before the living God, refusing to surrender ourselves and our churches to the various schemes that are finally only expressions of modernity’s, and now postmodernity’s, godless impatience” (313).

Theological Reflections On Sigur Rós

By request.

From James Davidson Hunter, To Change the World, pages 231–232:

Even in the context of late modernity, suffused as it is by failed ideologies, false idolatries, and distorted ideas of community, joy, and love, one can still find much good. Life still has significance and worth. What is more, people of every creed and no creed have talents and abilities, possess knowledge, wisdom, and inventiveness, and hold standards of goodness, truth, justice, morality, and beauty that are, in relative degree, in harmony with God’s will and purposes. These are all gifts of grace that are lavished on people whether Christian or not. To be sure, there is a paradox here that perplexes many Christians. On the one hand, nonbelievers oftentimes possess more of these gifts than believers. On the other hand, because of the universality of the fall, believers often prove to be unwise, unloving, ungracious, ignorant, foolish, and craven. Indeed, more than any Christian would like to admit, believers themselves are often found indifferent to and even derisive of expressions of truth, demonstrations of justice, acts of nobility, and manifestations of beauty outside of the church. Thus, even where wisdom and morality, justice and beauty exist in fragments or in corrupted form, the believer should recognize these as qualities that, in Christ, find their complete and perfect expression. The qualities nonbelievers possess as well as the accomplishments they achieve may not be righteous in an eschatological sense, but they should be celebrated all the same because they are gifts of God’s grace.

Love for others

This excerpt from John Calvin reminds me a bit of the quote I posted earlier in the week from James Davidson Hunter. In The Institutes, Calvin writes (2.8.55; McNeil/Battles, 1:419):

“…we ought to embrace the whole human race without exception in a single feeling of love; here there is no distinction between barbarian and Greek, worthy and unworthy, friend and enemy, since all should be contemplated in God, not in themselves. When we turn aside from such contemplation, it is no wonder we become entangled in many errors. Therefore, if we rightly direct our love, we must first turn our eyes not to man, the sight of whom would more often engender hate than love, but to God, who bids us extend to all men the love we bear to him, that this may be an unchanging principle: Whatever the character of the man, we must yet love him because we love God.”

Parodies of eschatological hope

It was inevitable that I would read James Davidson Hunter’s book To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (Oxford, 2010). The book has generated a lot of buzz in the blogotubes and for a time I’m pretty certain one of my friends was doing his morning devotions from it. So I read it and I’m glad I did. Hunter is an exceptional writer.

Personally, I am hesitant to embrace or endorse his overall vision for cultural engagement mostly because I’ve left the entire discussion of cultural engagement to those with much larger brains than my own. But one of Hunter’s points resonates with me.

On pages 234–235 Hunter writes the following (bold/italics his):

Let me finally stress that any good that is generated by Christians is only the net effect of caring for something more than the good created. If there are benevolent consequences of our engagement with the world, in other words, it is precisely because it is not rooted in a desire to change the world for the better but rather because it is an expression of a desire to honor the creator of all goodness, beauty, and truth, a manifestation of our loving obedience to God, and a fulfillment of God’s command to love our neighbor.

It is clear at this point that the very source of affirmation—its motive, its logic, and its telos—contains the second moment in the dialectic: antithesis. Antithesis is rooted in a recognition of the totality of the fall. In this light, all human effort falls short of its intended potential, all human aspirations exist under judgment, and all human achievement is measured by the standards of the coming kingdom.

In the present historical context, this means that Christians recognize that all social organizations exist as parodies of eschatological hope. And so it is that the city is a poor imitation of heavenly community; the modern state, a deformed version of the ecclesia; the market, a distortion of consummation; modern entertainment, a caricature of joy; schooling, a misrepresentation of true formation; liberalism, a crass simulacrum of freedom; and the sovereignty we accord to the self, a parody of God himself.

As these institutions and ideals become ends in themselves, they become the objects of idolatry. The shalom of God—which is to say, the presence of God himself—is the antithesis to all such imitations. Always and everywhere he relativizes the pretensions of all social institutions to power, fellowship, joy, freedom, and authority. Always and everywhere his presence declares that human endeavor is never the final word.

Cultural Progress and the Gospel

Many years ago Herman Bavinck wrote that as culture is cultured there will inevitably bring a realization that the progress of culture making cannot resolve man’s fundamental problems. In fact, he writes, as culture develops the problems of the human heart are left unresolved and ever more exposed. “For while all culture satisfies needs,” he writes, “it also creates and arouses needs.” Of course this cultural regress in the midst of assumed cultural progress sets the stage for the advance of the gospel. I think this is an apt idea that is worthy of further consideration. Here’s the relevant section from Reformed Dogmatics 3:32­7–328:

…human beings have at their disposal many means to maintain themselves in the struggle of existence and to protect themselves against the forces of violence. They are not alone but live in communities. They can combine forces with others and seek strength in union. They have brains to think with, hands to work with, and can by labor and struggle conquer, establish, and expand a place for themselves in the world.

It is noteworthy, however, that all theses aids and supports are not enough for them. However much people may have achieved culturally, they are never satisfied with it and do not attain the redemption for which they are thirsting. For while all culture satisfies needs, it also creates and arouses needs. While, on the one hand, culture prompts them to take pride in the great progress they have made, on the other, it gives them a progressively clearer sense of the long road they still have to travel. To the degree people subdue the world under their feet, to that degree they feel more and more dependent on those heavenly forces against which, with their limited power and puny means, they avail nothing. To the extent they solve problems, to that extent they see the riddles of the world and of life multiply and increase in complexity.

As they dream of progress and civilization, they at the same time see opening up before them the instability and futility of the existing world. Culture has great, even incalculable, advantages but also brings with it its own peculiar drawbacks and dangers. “The more abundantly the benefits of civilization come streaming our way, the emptier our life becomes.”

This is why, in addition to culture, there has always been religion. Rather, religion preceded culture, and culture everywhere came to birth and maturity under the influence of religion. If the ills of humanity were caused by culture, they could certainly be cured in no way other than by culture. But the ills we have in mind are native to the human heart, which always remains the same, and culture only brings them out. With all its wealth and power, it only shows that the human heart, in which God has put eternity [Eccles. 3:11], is so huge that all the world is too small to satisfy it.

Human beings are in search of another and better redemption than culture can give them. They are looking for lasting happiness, an enduring eternal good. They are thirsting for a redemption that saves them physically as well as spiritually, for time but also for eternity. And this only religion, and nothing else, can give them. God alone can give it to them, not science or art, civilization or culture. For that reason redemption is a religious concept, is found in all religions, and is almost always coupled with the idea of reconciliation. For the redemption that humans seek and need is one in which they are lifted up above the whole world into communion with God. [text boldness is mine]