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Francis Schaeffer on the Origins of Relativism in the Church

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Monday, April 13, 2009

A Favorite Schaeffer Passage

Because of a conversation that's come up at Oklahoma Lefty, it struck me that this might be a good time to quote one of my favorite passages from Francis Schaeffer's The God Who is There:
One day I was talking to a group of people in the room of a young South African in Cambridge University. Among others, there was present a young Indian who was of Sikh background but a Hindu by religion. He started to speak strongly against Christianity, but did not really understand the problems of his own beliefs. So I said, "Am I not correct in saying that on the basis of your system, cruelty and noncruelty are ultimately equal, that there is no instrinsic difference between them?" He agreed. The people who listened and knew him as a delightful person, an "English gentleman" of the very best kind, looked up in amazement. But the student in whose room we met, who had clearly understood the implications of what the Sikh had admitted, picked up his kettle of boiling water with which he was about to make tea, and stood with it steaming over the Indian's head. The man looked up and asked him what he was doing, and he said with a cold yet gentle finality, "There is no difference between cruelty and noncruelty." Thereupon the Hindu walked out into the night.
Do you understand what happened there? It is often said that all the world's religions are basically the same, and in some senses, this is true, or at least partially true. Pretty much everyone teaches that there are things you shouldn't do and things you should do. But it's not unfair to say that the dissimilarities begin there, which is awfully early in the discussion. The reality is that the religions of the world have radically different presuppositions on which they base their thinking, and have tremendously different answers to such questions as: What is Man? Where did he come from? Does he have a purpose? If so, what is it? Is there such a thing as an objectively identifiable good? Is the material world real or illusory? Etc. Etc. Etc.

The problem people run into--and in my experience, they run into it all the time, they just don't know it, or think about it--is that they want to live in a world reflecting presuppositions that they, or their worldview, actually deny. Atheists are often a terrific example of this, Richard Dawkins being one of the most notorious. He'll say that it's "wrong," morally "wrong" to teach children that there is a God, despite the fact that in an atheistic universe, children and teachers both have no moral status or purpose. They all arrived at their place in existence by sheer accident, without purpose, being, in fact, nothing more than meaningless machines that accomplish, bluntly, nothing more than eating and defecating and talking, all the while holding the same moral status as a rock, a tree, a dodo, a tiger, or any other accidentally-arrived-at eating-and-defecating mechanism. In such a universe, "morality" is nothing more than a survival mechanism.

In my experience, such people have a very plastic morality. When they wish to deny Judeo-Christian mores, they will deny that there is any basis for morality, following much the same line of thought as I have given. One blogger quotes Dawkins as saying, in his River Out of Eden:
...nature is not cruel, only pitiously indifferent. This is one of the hardest lessons for humans to learn. We cannot admit that things might be neither good nor evil, neither cruel nor kind, but simply callous-indifferent to all suffering, lacking all purpose...
But when they wish to shape human behavior, they will--somehow!--find a way to label behavior and opinions they don't like as immoral--in Dawkins' case, "immoral" being more or less equivalent to being detrimental to the survival of the species. But to the question of why the species should survive, Dawkins can give no substantive answer. His "morality" ends up being a sort of purposeless utilitarianism.

I pick on atheists because they are such easy targets as to make excellent examples, but the same line of thinking can be found elsewhere. For example, I recall--will recall forever--a video clip I saw several years ago, which was shown to the people in our church as the Southern Baptist Convention was starting a period of outreach to Hindus. The clip showed a Hindu man engaged in various acts of worship, but what stuck out to me was the man's resolute insistence that it was "wrong," "very bad," a "very bad thing" for someone to say that someone else was a "sinner."

"Well," I thought, "Exactly what do you call someone who has done a 'very bad thing'?" The man wanted to live in a universe wherein there was no such thing as a sinner, but couldn't even articulate the thought without contradicting himself at a very basic level. And this sort of thing goes on all the time.

Schaeffer said elsewhere in his works that when it comes to the really big questions, there are really very few possible answers. Those answers are not the same from religion to religion; it is only wishful thinking on some peoples' part that makes it seem so.

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