Pastor Stephen Feinstein
Last time, I wrote about theology dropping below the line of despair with Neo-Orthodoxy. Now that such a plummet has been discussed with regard to all of the major disciplines, we can talk more about being below the line of despair. In fact, this is where Schaeffer goes next, for life underneath the line continues to evolve. For those who are just now jumping onto this blog, I am summarizing Francis Schaeffer’s books on the Christian Worldview. He argues that prior to 1890 people believed in absolutes since they believed in antithesis (if a statement is true, then its opposite is false). After 1890, absolutes were abandoned by the various fields of study. To not believe in absolute truth is to live below the line of despair.
Schaeffer points out that there are different levels of despair. The most basic level is nihilism. This is the total rejection of all meaning and purpose. Some of the early artists bought into this, became insanely depressed, and committed suicide. If the universe is truly a random-chance based accident, then nihilism actually makes sense. However, most people could not live with nihilism, for it is impossible to live by. Furthermore, it contradicts all aspects of human experience. Human experience clearly shows that there are absolutes and every single one of us lives by them, even if we try to claim that such absolutes do not exist. The failure of nihilism should have caused fallen man to logically reject the idea that reality is meaningless. Our experience so cries against the idea of a chance-based atheistic universe that the rational thing would have been to accept the Christian Worldview presuppositions. These presuppositions can unify all fields of knowledge and accurately explain all reality and experience. Well, this option was not good enough for fallen man. So their answer was to create a second level under the line of despair.
This second level was the division of knowledge that I have been talking about for the past few weeks. Schaeffer calls this the “dichotomy.” The general idea is that the universe is meaningless in and of itself, and so the disciplines that study reality (most ofd the sciences) do so with the understanding that there is no God, no purpose, and no unity to existence. However, human beings are placed at the center of knowledge and are then enabled to define and choose meaning for themselves in an irrational leap of faith. So humans can choose to live as though there is meaning and value, but it comes down to each one’s opinion. So morals, values, religious beliefs, and so on are all placed in this category. They are separated from the rational sciences and are seen to be individual matters.
This is how many people live and cope under the line of despair. This is also very relevant to the comments that were made on my last post. Most atheistic philosophers are not nihilists for this reason. They subscribe to this second level below the line. Therefore, they can live normal lives because they are comfortable with their irrational leap of faith. They comfortable with no grand unifying theory because they can unify thought however they want. In so doing, they actually betray what they really believe. All this proves is that they really do still believe in absolutes. They really do still believe in objective meaning. Their lives need objectivity since it is impossible for us to survive without it. As image bearers of the one true God, we know objectivity is real, but in order to suppress it, fallen man declares the universe to be meaningless. Since we cannot undo our humanness and the need for absolutes that stem from our status as imago dei, fallen humanity has divided knowledge so that we can live by absolutes while at the same time denying that they exist. It really is quite absurd. But this is what fallen man must resort to if he rejects the Christian worldview. Perhaps it is for this reason that Schaefer considers this second level of despair to be a more profound level of despair.
A key example of the non-livability of this way of thinking is Jean-Paul Sarte, the famous secular existentialist. He believed that since there is no true meaning, that if a person helped a lady cross a street or chose to rob her instead, neither would be more acceptable than the other. Moral absolutes were nonsense to him. And yet later on, he was upset with fellow existentialist Albert Camus for taking stands that seemed to be absolute. Sadly, Sarte’s very displeasure with this is a sign that he himself believed in absolutes. Otherwise, why be upset over Camus’ choice? Even worse, he then later signed the Algerian Manifesto, which was a moral statement against
Well, this caused other secular existentialists to become upset since his
taking of a moral stand as though it were objective and absolute betrayed their
existentialism. Yet, their indignation with him for doing this betrayed their
system too since they treated his action as though it violated an absolute
standard. Thus, the idea that there are no absolutes is unlivable, even if you
try to divide knowledge into two separate realms like the existentialists did.
So this failure of the second level below the line of despair (dichotomy) then led to the development of a thirdlevel – mysticism. The best way to see mysticism is as an optimistic attempt to find a unified absolute that cannot be rationally defined. So it is still placed in the leap of faith category where morals, values, truth, justice, and religion. exist. They simply wanted to believe that behind all of these abstract ideas is an even more abstract reality. Some people, such as Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961) said that the ultimate absolute was the collective conscious of the human race as a whole. In other words, we are all individual pieces of one giant collective reality. We as individuals cannot concretely define it, and thus it is an abstract mystical reality that can never be proved, but must be assumed. Other thinkers believed that using symbols are the best that we humans can do to speak of this abstract reality, but ultimately the symbols have no real power to define it.
For the person familiar with Hindu philosophy and religion, this will all sound familiar. The idea is that ultimate reality is one impersonal substance that is untouchable by human experience or rationale, but instead we are all illusions that use illusory words to describe a reality that is ultimately indescribable. Truly, this third level below the line was where the formerly logical West was now ready to meet the illogical East. There are many forms that this mysticism takes, but the bottom line is it tries to say there is something that is transcendent, but it is unknowable, and thus it is still up to each person to define what that reality is for itself. This effectively leads to a rejection of the law of contradiction, as all propositions are said to be attempts to describe the same ultimate reality.
To the rational person, this should all sound like total nonsense. And it is. But when you abandon antithesis and replace it with synthesis, you eventually even lose logic. As a Christian that sees the world through the lens of the Christian worldview, I must admit that this does not surprise me. Ultimately, there are only two points we can start from. We can either start from the idea that God is the ground of reality and we build our reason atop His revelation, or we can start with humanity at the center, and try to justify our thoughts on our own authority. The move from Renaissance to Enlightenment to Romanticism to Nihilism to Mysticism is the natural progression that human thought would take if we attempted to keep humanity at the center of our thinking.
This is best exemplified with the brilliant Renaissance man, Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519). He was the first modern mathematician and was extremely brilliant in all ways (as a scientist, artist, inventor, and philosopher). However, he is perhaps the one who started Western Civilization on its path to despair. The Protestant Reformation was sparked just as Leonardo was dying, and it provided an opposite path. This was the path of a definite culture, and a justification for the absolutes that exist all around us. It was a path that is the grand unifying theory that brings together the universals with the particulars. This is the Christian worldview. Leonardo, however, began with man’s rational capacities as his starting point. From there he could find no universal that could unite the many particulars. This makes sense since each human is one of these particulars. Thus, when you begin with the particular rather than the universal, then you will only be able to find the particulars, and you will have no way to unite them. But if you begin with the fact that the universal exists, and in that universal all of the particulars find their connection and meaning, then all knowledge is united and works. God is the absolute person that is distinct from all particulars. He is the author of all universals and their particulars. He is the ground for all absolute truth. Beginning with Him provides the unity that Leonardo could not find.
But Leonardo did not surrender his hopelessness. Instead he died in it. He died with no unity of knowledge. Then the Enlightenment followed the Renaissance by keeping man at the center. Romanticism did likewise, until finally the modern age had come. At this point, the solution was to say that rationality and science can only deal with the particulars, and that we can believe in whatever universals we want by making an irrational leap of faith. At this point, man was below the line of despair, and progressed from nihilism to dichotomy (separating knowledge into the two spheres), and now to mysticism. Mysticism accepts the dichotomy itself as intrinsic to the universe. This is the heart of postmodernism.
The end result is that postmodernists can use our Christian vocabulary, but assign whatever meaning they want to it. On their theory of truth, there is nothing wrong with contradiction. Liberal theologians have embraced this themselves, to where they use all of the same words as us (God, Christ, salvation, sin, the Fall, etc.), but they mean entirely different things by them. The end result is two different religions that use the same terminology. No wonder people are confused.
Once again, the solution is for Christians to submit to the biblical worldview and to push antithesis to the world. Fallen man is still in the image of God, therefore he knows truth exists, he knows antithesis is true, and he knows that God is the ground of both the universal and the particular. No one needs proof that God exists. They already know this in their heart of hearts. They simply suppress it. We must confront that suppression with the truth, and show them the way out of their despair. I will close with Romans 1:18-25, as it sums this up well.
Rom 1:18-25 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. (19) For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. (20) For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. (21) For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. (22) Claiming to be wise, they became fools, (23) and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. (24) Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, (25) because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.