Philosophers and the Line of Despair
Pastor Stephen Feinstein
We live in a postmodern world, and as I pointed out yesterday, we can pinpoint the shift from modernity to postmodernity with specific dates. Francis Schaeffer diagramed this by drawing a line titled, “The line of the despair.” Everything before 1890 in Europe, and 1935 in the United States, was above the line of despair and everything after was below the line of despair. The line despair simply refers to the fact that fallen man has rejected the existence of absolutes, and has therefore given up his quest for a grand unifying theory. So his philosophies and theories continue to become more and more meaningless and absurd.
Well, as I said yesterday, this all began with the philosophers. This shift towards abandoning absolutes started with the discipline of philosophy, then moved to art and music, and then hit the general culture. Afterward, liberal theologians picked up on it. Well, today we will focus just on philosophy. I do warn that it might seem a little technical, but then again I have taught some of the same concepts to 10th grade World History students. So it should not be over anyone’s head. Discussions of philosophy almost always require some technical language.
What caused the discipline of philosophy to go below the line of despair and introduce to the world the idea that there are no absolutes? It all started with the German philosopher Georg Hegel (1770-1831). Hegel opened the doorway to plunge beneath the line of despair because he changed the world’s understanding of truth. Prior to Hegel, philosophers generally held to absolutes and that truth was determined through antithesis. Things are objectively right and true or wrong and false. With antithesis, you have both cause and effect moving on a horizontal line. Well, Hegel overthrew this by insisting on synthesis. What does this mean? Hegel believed that you start out with a “thesis,” which is what is normally accepted by society. Then it’s opposite, the antithesis, comes forth. But rather than one being true and the other false, neither is true in and of itself, but instead the two in their battle join together in synthesis. This synthesis is the combination of the two, which now becomes the new truth. Humanity then continues this process throughout all of history.
The consequence of this understanding of truth is that truth is not objectively real. Instead it is relative to society. It is relative to whatever ideas a society is willing to add to its total pot of “truth.” And once Hegel opened this door, the next big philosopher plunged through it, thus bringing us below the line of despair. Before I address that man, first it is fair to say that Hegel’s thinking dominates most people, even if they have never heard of him. Most people these days do see truth as being relative to any given culture and time. Thus, most Americans would not view the morals of today to be in contradiction with the traditional morals of the 1950s, but instead they would say that was the prevailing truth then, and our current standards are the prevailing truth now. Sadly, many who claim to be Christians think this way too.
Well, if Hegel opened the door, the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) was the first to enter and go below the line. He is considered the father of all modern thinking, and he is the father of the philosophy of existentialism, both the secular and theological variants. So how did he sink philosophy below the line of despair? Well, it is really simple. He bought into Hegel’s idea of synthesis, but upon reflecting on it, Kierkegaard claimed that you could not arrive at the “synthesis” by reason, but instead it is by a leap of faith. He believed that rational thought could not understand nor truly define the really important things of human life such as significance, meaning, love, justice, etc., but instead these were to be determined by a “leap of faith.” So whatever society or individuals decide with regard to these matters, it is based on an irrational leap of faith, and therefore does not have to be justified. The end result is that the most important philosophical matters that pertain to our existence were greatly reduced to relativity. Philosophers would no longer attempt to define such things in absolute terms, but instead they would see such an idea as nonsense. Kierkegaard, whether he realized it or not, separated faith from reason, and society adopted this view, and we who understand that faith and reason go hand-in-hand have not been able to undo what Kierkegaard started.
The end conclusion of Kierkegaard’s view is that the things that are available to reason such as the properties of matter, the laws of physics, chemistry, and so on are all meaningless and without true purpose. They simply happen, and with rational thinking we can learn their patterns. But as human beings we tend to want to find meaning. Thus, each human can choose for himself what significance and meaning he wants to ascribe to things. This makes truth (which is a concept that cannot be defined or understood by reason) to be relative to individuals and society. Truly, what you have is a system of thought that assumes an atheistic universe (even if Kierkegaard did not assume this) that is blind and meaningless, but humans can lie to themselves and create whatever meaning or truth that they want. Since it is all nonsense, it does not matter. No one is particularly wrong since everyone truly is wrong when they assign meaning and value to things. The whole idea is that no one can truly ever know the truth since it does not objectively exist. Therefore, being judgmental of other people’s views is seen as wrong.
Existentialism veered off into both a theological and secular direction. The theological variant will be brought up at a later time. The secular is what is being focused on here. After Kierkegaard, the secular forms of existentialism were carried on by famous atheists such as Jean-Paul Sarte (1905-1980) and Albert Camus (1913-1960). They saw the universe as an absurdity of randomness. Thus, each person must authenticate themselves by an act of the will. We must choose what we are going to be, ascribe meaning to it, and then just go and do it. There is no right and there is no wrong. If I choose to authenticate myself by doing good for society, then that is no better or worse than choosing to authenticate myself by becoming a serial killer. The movie the Matrix captured this philosophy well, since part of its goal was to promote existential thinking. Neo starts out thinking there are absolute truths (e.g. he is the chosen one, the war can be won, etc.), but in the second movie he learns that it is all a ruse and that he exists to keep the meaningless system continuing forever. Well, in the third movie he tries to stop the ongoing cycle, even though it is technically futile, and when asked by the antagonist (Agent Smith) as to why he continues to try, his answer was, “Because I choose to.” In a meaningless universe, he chose to define himself by what he did. That was his truth, even if it was not the antagonist’s truth.
I figure by this point, you probably have had enough of philosophy and you want to me to move on and answer what is the point of it all. I will in a minute. First, it is worthy to note that in England two other philosophies also emerged that reinforced the chasm between faith and reason. The first was logical positivism, which simply argued that the only things that can be counted as data are the things outside of ourselves that we can physically interact with (such as the things we can experience with the senses). Anything that we cannot sense is useless for determining true knowledge. Thus, ideas like truth, right, wrong, good, evil, justice, God, spirits, angels, and so on were seen as nonsense ideas that have no bearing on reality. Many scientists still operate off of these assumptions even though philosophers have long since abandoned logical positivism due to its self-contradictory nature. The second British philosophy is called Defining Philosophy. The goal is to define all terms that can be defined and then move on from there in terms of building a body of knowledge. If a word cannot be concretely defined, then it is a nonsense idea. This is another attempt to take meaning and purpose out of the equation, and thus separate faith from reason.
I think you can see what all of these philosophies below the line of despair have in common. They all assume a meaningless atheistic reality, and thus they all separate reason and science from faith. The only objective things are those that can be evaluated by man’s science and reason, and everything else (such as the concept of truth) is a free for all based on whatever people want to accept by faith.
The average person on the street obviously does not think so sophisticatedly about these matters. Instead, they have been taught by the general culture that truth is up to each individual and we are not to judge. It is important for Christians, however, to know that this foolish idea originated in the hopeless reasonings of philosophers that refused to see God as the ground and center of all reality. Since God exists, truth, justice, love, and all of the other concepts that have been “relativized” are in fact objective. They are what God defines them to be, and because we are made in the image of God we intuitively know this. These human philosophies are all self-contradictory. If truth is not objective because it is a synthesis, why then did Hagel treat the idea of synthesis as though it was objectively true? In order to reject all objectivity in matters of truth, he had to assume the right of objectivity for himself alone. That is contradictory and hypocritical. The same holds true for Kierkegaard. He assumed that the abstract notions of human importance came down to a subjective leap of faith, but in order to claim this is true requires that he objectively knew this to be a case. How did Kierkegaard know that even his rational thoughts were more than a leap of faith? Sarte and Camus have a similar problem. They claim that reality is meaningless and hence there is no real truth, and yet the very claim that the universe is meaningless is an objective truth statement itself. Logical Positivism claimed that only things experienced with the senses can count as data, but to define data in this manner requires them to assume that their definition is objectively true. How do they know this? The definition philosophers somehow believe that their definitions are objectively true. How can this be if objective truth does not exist? Accurate definitions presuppose the objectivity of the definitions themselves!
You get the point. All of these philosophers are guilty of the same thing. In their attempt to declare that truth is not real or absolute or authoritative, they all had to stand in a position of authoritative truth in order to declare this. Why? Because deep down every human really does know that absolutes do exist, and that truth is one of them. As I said yesterday, they tossed out the wrong thing. They should have tossed out their humanistic assumptions and traded them for the Christian worldview. Had they done so, they would have seen a GUT that unifies all knowledge and explains perfectly all reality and data without contradiction. Instead of doing this, they threw away absolutes and held to their man-centered assumptions. Each decade afterward, society has only plummeted further and further below the line of despair.
This is why the average person these days thinks the way they do. It started with the philosophers. Eventually it made its way to the masses, though it lost its sophisticated form. Monday I will address the next step in the ladder. After the philosophers, the line of despair claimed the artists. For now, I exhort you Christians to remember that the only way to avoid hopeless and contradictory thinking is to view everything through the lens of the Christian worldview. It avoids the hopelessness we see in worldly thinking.
I hope this was helpful for you all. Until Monday, God bless you.