I’d like to recommend a short little book to you all, a book I’m slightly embarrassed to admit that I had never read before (until last evening and first thing this morning), Francis Shaeffer’s Escape From Reason.
And here’s why you should beg, borrow, buy, trade yourself into the possession of a copy of this book and read it:
1. As with other perennial classics like Lewis’s Mere Christianity or Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, Escape From Reason is powerful precisely because of its succinct nature. It’s short — a mere 121 pages in my edition — and packs a serious punch. In this case, Escape is a summary and biblical critique of Western thought and manages to be both intellectually bracing and practically rich. A high school student might profit from this treatment as may a philosophy major, a pastor or a well-read theologian. Shaeffer writes with a deceptive simplicity, covering sometimes in mere sentences what whole dissertations might seek to unpack. The danger here is always that in summarizing, the author may oversimplify, and it may indeed be the case that Shaeffer needs clarifying or nuancing at points, but all of the best, most important intellectual works are significant because they get the basic flow right. They get the general trajectory of things, and if Shaeffer has done that, and I think he has, then it’s worth the occasional question or quibble.
2. Shaeffer understands the difference between rationalism (autonomous human brain worship) and rational thought (using our brains to worship Jesus). The longer I ride on this bluish-green rock hurtling through space at this particular point in the story of the human race, the more I’m convinced that this distinction is one of the most needful things. In reaction to the dead end of godless, arrogant rationalism, many pagans and believers alike have reverted to various forms of mysticism. And Shaeffer puts his finger right on this bleeding artery. The solution is not to reject rational thought, it is rather to subject our rational thought to the Word of God, and to search for the coherent integration and meaning of all things there, where God has spoken to us, where He has revealed the Truth to us, preeminently in the gospel of Jesus. As finite human beings we cannot possibly know all truth, but we can know true truth or we can know some truth truly and by that means learn, grow, discover, and come to understand more about God, ourselves, and this world.
3. The book was first published in 1968. Yes, that’s my third reason. You know that someone was given an unusual prescience about the world when what he wrote nearly fifty years ago still resonates and is confirmed in spades by the way things have continued to progress. His particular gift is seeing how philosophy finds its way from intellectuals into the arts and literature and entertainment of western culture. What he spotted in many buds has fully blossomed in the West and now we’re sloshing waist deep through its rotten fruit all over the orchard floor. Though I’m happy to admit that sometimes I’m rather slow on the uptake, his succinct description of how autonomous humanistic philosophy (beginning with Aquinas letting the camel’s nose under the tent) influenced art was particularly helpful and persuasive. I had several “Aha” moments here. Any Christian who wants to seriously wrestle with the arts or any cultural issues of our day needs to carefully digest this book.
4. Shaeffer understands in helpful, charitable, but crystal clear ways the significant intellectual and theological contribution of the Protestant Reformation project grounded in Sola Scriptura. True abuses and straw-man caricatures aside, Sola Scriptura is not merely a denominational distinctive like the differences between presbyterians and baptists. No, the clear and careful and truly catholic articulation of Sola Scriptura rightly understood is the difference between human hope on the one hand and inescapable human despair on the other. The Orthodox and Roman acquiescence to human tradition holding equal or a superior place to Holy Scripture is the crack in the dam that leads to nihilism. I fully realize that this is a bald assertion, but you really need to read this book if that assertion raises any of your intellectual or theological hackles. Rightly understood, Sola Scriptura has a robust role for an authoritative ecclesiastical tradition, but like all other human authority, only in subservience to Christ, which is to say as He has spoken infallibly in Scripture.
5. This final reason why you need to get and read Escape From Reason is more of a concrete example of the kind of thoughtful analysis you find in the book. Shaeffer traces the trajectory of western thought up through the twentieth century and includes some of the significant theological moves in the modern era. Under the heading of Christian Existentialism, Shaeffer critiques Karl Barth and what he calls “The New Theology” (e.g. Tillich) which all boil down to various ways of trying to affirm some notion of a god, of Christ, of revelation but all of this “truth” is above and beyond any rational thought or access and so remains completely undefined, and Shaeffer’s particular insight is that this necessarily leaves the power of this theology solely in rhetorical connotations. A theologian or preacher is not so much communicating Truth but rather brandishing Biblical words or names while waving off any particular definitions. And it is the vague connotations of the words or names that create spiritual impressions. But this leaves the faculty of man’s reason starved and to that extent the human soul is that much more disfigured. While admitting (again) the finite limitations of the human mind, it was nevertheless created by God as part (not all) of how human beings are to flourish, and significantly, part of how salvation is accomplished. The preaching of the gospel is not merely a rhetorical impressionism. It is the communication of truth about God, sin, Jesus, and grace. We cannot underestimate the importance of this. In the following chapter Shaeffer points out that the painter Salvador Dali did much the same thing when he painted Christian symbols. Shaeffer writes: “In his later work the Christian symbols are painted using their connotative effect, rather than verbalized, as in the New Theology. But this makes no difference. It is based on a leap, and an illusion of communication is given by using the connotative effect of Christian symbols” (82).
This is one of those moments where impulse buying is actually one of the fruits of the Spirit. Here, I’ll even link it for you right here.