Top critical review
Sincere, but seriously flawed.
on January 22, 2001
...I believe the book is an articulate expression ofconservative Christian thinking, regarding the decline of Westerncivilization. It is more "intellectual" than many otherChristian books. I agree, with Schaeffer, that the West, generallyspeaking, is increasingly fragmenting. There are forces in Westernsocieties which encourage a de-humanization of individuals. And thereare ethical concerns, coming from that de-humanization process, suchas violent crime, drug use, not to mention war, genocide, andterrorism.
But I have to part with Schaeffer, in his explanation ofwhat accounts for these phenomena. He affirms that it all stems from asociety not having a "consensus", arising from a"Judaic-Christian" worldview. In other words, if the folksin charge of running the show, and the general populace, have a strongfaith in the God of the Bible, then there'll be solidity andorder. That's why, for example, he uses the Roman bridge as anillustration of how civilization in the West lasted so long.
Aftergetting through one chapter, one gets the impression that Schaeffer'sout of his league, when it comes to history, and the issues ofsociology. His specifically-Christian premise, and the way heselectively tries to bolster his argument, doesn't jibe withhistory. The Roman empire lasted for roughly 300 years -- but notbecause of Jewish-Christian theism. Roman religion did play a role incementing their world together. But it certainly wasn't the only, orthe primary, factor. Schaeffer also tries to make the point -- notvery well --that the ideas of the Enlightenment led directly to theatrocities of the French "Reign of Terror". They didn't. Atthe same time, he conveniently ignores the fact that secular thinking,in large measure, contributed to the Declaration of Independence, theUS Constitution, and the stress on freedom and human rights.
It canbe argued, persuasively, that the excesses of capitalism andconsumerism (the corporate need to make a buck, over the needs of theindividual), urbanization, and immigration, are as much a causes ofthe mediocrity in the West, as the decline of religiousbeliefs. Probably more so. An ethical culture is a worthwhile goal toshoot for, and to preserve. But to say that the one, valid way for itto happen is by having faith in the Bible, and cultivating a Christiansociety -- that's myopic, in the least, and, to me, a bitarrogant. History doesn't really bear that out that view. Democracy,secularism, and a concern for human needs can, and do, gotogether. (Take a look at most of US history, Scandinavia, Canada, anddemocratic Western Europe.) Humane policies, and ethical behavior bycitizens, takes place without belief in God. Not always. (See Stalin.)But theism isn't a necessary prequisite for loving one's neighbor. Itcan precede it. But too many examples of religious tyranny, along withhumanistic literature, art, and social endeavors, tend to discount thetheory, promoted in this book, that theism is THE way togo.
Secularization isn't the culprit behind Western society's ills;a combination of many other social forces have contributed to thefrustrations of our modern life. But Schaeffer tends to oversimplify-- and in the process, distort -- what's really happened inhistory. The value of reading the book, along with his "ChristianMaifesto", is learning the rationalization for much ofconservative Christian politics. It expresses a genuine desire toappreciate and improve our culture. But like the Puritans of NewEngland, it's a misdirected approach, which advocates theocratictendencies in government as the only cure. Schaeffer has a point, whenhe says that a cultural consensus should be sustained, to help a givensociety survive. But why should theism be a necessary component?Schaeffer never really answers the question.
"How Should WeThen Live?" should be read by more people, because of itsinfuence -- but thoughtfully and crtically. He shouldn't be agreedwith, just because he was a spokesman for "a Christianworldview". His arguments relating to history arewell-intentioned, but weak. As a result, he makes a poor case for histhesis.