Are Values Real? Three Books in Review
Reviewed by Richard Terrell
The Abolition of Man, C.S Lewis, 1944
Ideas Have Consequences, Richard Weaver, 1948
The God Who Is There, Francis A. Schaeffer, 1968
All three of these books offer a critique of what, subsequent to their writing, became known as "post-modernism." In the post-modern outlook, all truth claims are suspect; any notion of eternal, transcendent, and objective, "capital T" truth(s) is rejected. Each author, in his own way and emphasis, reveals the weakness in this worldview and locates the fatal flaw in the built-in incoherence of the argument.
None of the works make for easy, relaxed reading. Lewis and Weaver wrote at a time when the general population was more word-sensitive than we are today. One has to go slow and think about what one has just read on the page. Schaeffer is closer to a conversational approach, but one has to catch on to certain special twists and concepts that he employs. I have chosen to review the three books as a group, however, because of their unified emphasis on a question of fundamental importance: what is true, beyond our own feelings, and how can we know it? Although various aspects of social existence come into view, the core concern is epistemological.
C.S. Lewis' book is relatively short, a mere 101 pages (excluding the endnotes). His concern is focused on certain educational texts that communicate a radically skeptical worldview, vis-a-vis the issue of Truth, under the guise of teaching English grammar. He takes on a species of teacher he identifies as "debunkers." These are people who insist that judgments of value made by people represent only, and exclusively, their own sentiments and have no real connection to realities beyond the self. Lewis argues that the great and wide experience of humanity worldwide has asserted "the doctrine of objective value, the belief that certain attitudes are really true, and others really false, to the kind of thing the universe is and the kind of things we are." To demonstrate this he cites examples from various philosophic and spiritual traditions, identifying this conception in terms of the Chinese concept of "the Tao." He considers that "our approvals and disapprovals are . . . recognitions of objective value or responses to an objective order." Because this is so, emotional states can be in harmony with reason or in disharmony with reason. Emotional judgments "can be reasonable or unreasonable as they conform to Reason or fail to conform."
The flaw in the "debunkers" thinking is that, at some point, they must insist that they stand apart from the very thing they advocate. Those who "debunk" the affirmation of objective value as mere "sentimentality" nevertheless carry around in their own minds "values of their own which they believe to be immune from the debunking process." Hence, there is a built-in hypocrisy at the heart of the mind that would hold, at the same time, the notion that there is nothing that is universally and finally, objectively true, while advocating (as many do) for selected moral visions of their own choosing (say, working for a "better world," "posterity," or patriotic defense of one's country) as if such goals were self-evident truths worthy of absolute commitment.
To the "debunker" mentality, the rejection of a transcendent order releases humanity to control its own being and destiny through correct understanding and power over nature. But, writes Lewis, "each new power won by man is a power over man as well. Each advance leaves him weaker as well as stronger." More to the point, "the power of Man to make himself what he pleases means, as we have seen, the power of some men to make other men what they please." Lewis' assessment of this project was certainly influenced by his awareness of the devastating human tragedies of modern "utopias" in the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. "I am very doubtful whether history shows us one example of a man who, having stepped outside traditional morality and attained power, has used that power benevolently. I am inclined to think that the Conditioners will hate the conditioned." Lewis pursued these issues in his Perelandra science-fiction trilogy.
Richard Weaver wrote Ideas Have Consequences in 1948, in the immediate post-World War II society. What makes this book so interesting is that certain sections of it read as if they could have been written last week. Weaver had his finger on a pulse that seems truly prophetic, and this power is suggested in the title of the book. Ideas have consequences. What people and societies believe to be true, or believe about truth, will sooner or later show up in the day-to-day living actions of humanity. Can a society embrace a radical subjectivity, in respect to the issue of truth, and sustain a livable moral order against the ravages of intellectual and moral chaos?
Weaver locates the contemporary problems of western decline in the influence of medieval philosophic doctrines known as Nominalism, as advocated by William of Occam. With Occam, a change came over man's conception of reality, a change that involved the denial "that universals have a real existence." The ensuing issue involved whether there is a source of truth higher than, and independent of humanity. "The practical result of Nominalist philosophy is to banish the reality which is perceived by the intellect and to posit as reality that which is perceived by the senses." This change effects, long-range, "the whole orientation of culture" and we are on to a modern reality, seemingly anticipated by Weaver, in which people say, as if stating a profundity, "you have your truth and I have mine," "there are no absolutes," or that sexual identity is nothing more than a "social construct."
Weaver distinguishes between "sentiment" and "sentimentality." Sentiment is an attitude or emotional attachment that is connected to objective reality and our orientation to the world. It is something that is aroused through connection to transcendent, objective realities that really exist. Although Weaver does not ride hard on a theistic horse, it is clear that he defines such transcendent universals and moral principles as created realities. Sentimentality flourishes in a context of rejection of such realities, lavishing emotional capital "upon the trivial and the absurd" or just cruelty and brutality. He quotes, in this connection, W.B. Yeats's The Second Coming: "The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity." (I have seen the same quote applied to our contemporary social and political reality).
Hierarchy and quality-higher and lower, better and worse-are qualities that are inherent in reality. Weaver relates his core idea to various aspects of social life in a discussion that ranges over language, music, education, media, entertainments, politics, and class. He insists that there is a real reality, and this reality defies any and all human attempts to avoid it. "People who live according to a falsified picture of the world sooner or later receive sharp blows."
Whereas all three of these books address issues of language, the chapter in Weaver's book entitled "The Power of the Word" is especially powerful in its affirmation of "that ancient belief that a divine element is present in language" and the significance of the Bible's revelation that "in the beginning was the Word [logos]." This affirmation has foundational consequences for law, politics, and personal existence.
Francis Schaeffer revolutionized the culture of evangelical Protestantism in the 1960s and 1970s through his ministry in Switzerland at L'Abri and many books and speaking engagements at colleges and universities. It is safe to say that nobody today can understand the evangelical protestant culture, or its current tensions, without some knowledge of the ideas and works of Francis Schaeffer. The God Who Is There is, arguably, his most foundational work. It is certainly a good place to start for anyone desiring to grasp what Schaeffer was about, intellectually and spiritually, and what his vision of the Christian faith was.
The core idea that animates Schaeffer's writings is his affirmation that the Christian worldview is fully coherent, intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually. But, not only is the Christian worldview fully coherent, Schaeffer insists that it is the only truly coherent worldview known to humanity. Coherence is a test of, and an evidence of, truth, and it is the issue of Truth that concerns him in this book. His first sentence states the case: "The present chasm between the generations has been brought about almost entirely by a change in the concept of truth." Christianity is being weakened and confused primarily because Christians "are still not being taught the importance of thinking in terms of presuppositions, especially concerning truth."
What is the central presuppositional base of the Christian faith? It is a three-fold affirmation:
(1) God is real and is really there; (2) the created order is real, and really there; (3) man is created in the image of God, and therefore can really know "true truth" through reason, logic, and divine revelation.
This recognition saves man from despair and intellectual/spiritual decay. Modern man, in opting for a materialistic explanation of life's origin, is left without a viable basis for meaning. Knowledge-seeking uncovers data, but this can tell us nothing about what is ultimately true or meaningful about human life. To find meaning, people take a "blind leap" of faith that has nothing to do, necessarily, with what they know (or think they know, for a radically naturalistic worldview leads to radical skepticism). This leads humanity into a sharp division defined by a dualistic schism where the search for meaning takes place in a superstitious "upper story" uninformed by real knowledge, and where the search for knowledge is cut off from the perception of meaning. Hence, Schaeffer's construct of the "line of despair."
We must not imagine that Francis Schaeffer developed his ideas merely as a theoretician detached from real human experience. Schaeffer's ministry at L'Abri welcomed encounters with many alienated, meaning-seeking but lost young people of the 60s counter-culture who despaired of an integrated experience of knowledge and meaning. His discussions led to a broad range of concerns, including human expressions in philosophy, art, music, linguistics, and of course theology. What Schaeffer did most powerfully was to argue that a person who would hold, philosophically, that everything we know and experience is but a product of occasions of chance effects (i.e. the worldview of materialistic Darwinism) cannot actually live in accordance with that affirmation. Many people hold that there are no absolutes, that there is no universal meaning or "capital T" truth, but they don't live their lives that way. Schaeffer's classic illustration of this is the "musician" John Cage, whose music is composed of random sounds expressing his view that the world is ultimately the product of chance, accidental effects. Yet Cage, who was an amateur mycologist (one who studies and classifies mushrooms) must admit that he could not possibly pick and eat mushrooms in accordance with his philosophic presuppositions because if he did he would die.
The Christian worldview, properly understood, offers an integrated view of life. True knowledge is possible alongside true spirituality that integrates mind and emotion, faith and knowledge, because man bears the image of a real God who has created a real world and placed us within it for a real purpose. Schaeffer is deeply critical of modern theology that has sought to separate theological truth from historical truth, dismissing the gospel narratives' historical veracity while seeking to retain meaning from them. The modern theology "denies that God is there in the historical biblical sense." This is an "upper story"/"lower story" cleavage that drives man to seek meaning at the cost of knowledge, or knowledge irrespective of meaning. Faith and Reason are split off from each other, and people seek meaning through "connotation words" that sound nice but which have no concrete referents. Schaeffer, throughout, offers an exposition of what it means to operate in the context of the first and great commandment: "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength."
Of the three books reviewed here, the most explicitly Christian in its expression is Schaeffer's. Yet, all three authors are obviously Christian in their perspectives. They make the case that Christian life involves a way of thinking. As such, they are important works, especially in a time of sound-bite culture of texts and tweets and mere emotionalism.