How Should We Then Live? Chapter 9: Modern Philosophy and Modern Theology


The picture is the cover to Axis: Bold As Love by Jimi Hendrix.  I thought it summarized the different ways modern man tries to find meaning without reason.  Among other things he searches in music, drugs, and Eastern religion, which show up in the cover art.

In chapter 8 Schaeffer explains the Breakdown of philosophy and science, which was a shift away from reason in philosophy and to strict materialism in science.  The chapter contained multiple dual or parallel ideas ending with a dichotomy between faith and reason.  Dichotomy means to cut in two pieces with the remaining parts standing diametrically opposed.

There isn't any duality in chapter 9.  Instead it records the long descent into nothing that started with the Breakdown and continued through intellectuals spreading their ideas out into the general public.  At the end of the journey, existentialism and nihilism leave people in despair, so modern man tries to escape that despair by grasping at pleasure or beauty.  However, he can't let himself think about anything for too long because even those things point back to the Creator they have forsaken.

Existential Philosophy: Sartre, Heidegger, Jaspers
French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre (1905-1980), the most well known existential philosopher, taught that a person must look inside oneself to find meaning.  There was no real purpose in the world, but a person could give meaning to himself if desired.  Meaning was determined by an act of the will.  He described it as authenticating one's life through action.  A person could authenticate his or her life any way he or she chooses without any appeal to a logical or moral standard.

                            "you could authenticate yourself either by helping a poor old lady
                            along the road at night or by speeding up your auto and running her
                            down.  Reason is not involved, and nothing can show you the
                            direction which your will should take."

But as a human being made in the image of God, Sartre couldn't practice what he preached consistently.  He knew on some level there was right and wrong.  He demonstrated he believed this at least subconsciously by signing the Algerian Manifesto in 1960 "which declared the Algerian War a dirty war."  He used reason to determine the war was wrong and continued to pursue similar political views the rest of his life.

Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) was a German philosopher who also believed that the answer to the meaning of life could not be found using reason.  He described man's position in the world as filled with "angst".  It is a feeling of uneasiness but not quite fear.

                            "it is fear without a definite object.  In Heidegger's view this mood of
                            anxiety gives people certainty of existence, and in doing so there is
                            laid upon them a call for decision."

For Heidegger purpose is found as a result of making a decision, but a decision divorced from reason and coming only because of a feeling of discomfort.  That is a weak foundation to base your life on, and even Heidegger changed his position later.

Karl Jaspers (1883-1969) was another German philosopher.  He preached that the key to finding meaning in life was to have "the final experience".

                            "By it he meant that even though our mind tells us life is absurd,
                            we may have some huge experience that encourages us to believe
                            that there is meaning to life."

To illustrate the problem with existentialism, Schaeffer tells a story of a young man from Holland that studied with him in Switzerland.  This person followed Jaspers' ideals, and thought he had found his "final experience" watching the play Green Pastures.  The story affected him emotionally very deeply.  He had no words to explain what he thought about it, just that it gave him hope.  After months of wrestling with this experience, there was still nothing tangible. He came to no realization about himself or life.  The memory of the experience drifted away into time and he became suicidal.

Even in 1976 Schaeffer says that existentialism was losing influence among philosophers. However, its influence was growing among the general population.  As of 2021, this kind of thinking is as systemic in reality as the Critical Race Theorists think racism is.  How many more times in the last 44 years have young people become suicidal or hopeless because they believed in existentialism?  I would guess a very large number, but it is hard to quantify.  Modern man wanders down a depressing path.

                            "His great hope that he could begin from himself and produce
                            a uniformity of knowledge led him, however, to the sad place
                            where his mind told him that he was only a machine, a bundle
                            of molecules.  Then he tried desperately to find meaning in
                            the area of non-reason, until, with those following Jaspers, the
                            problem became how one could be sure he would ever have a
                            big enough final experience (or even if he had one, how he
                            could ever have another) and there was no way to be sure."

Huxley Points To Meaning In Drugs, Psychedelic Music, Eastern Religion, and the Occult
Sadly, secular philosophy never gave up and admitted failure. Aldous Huxley (1894-1963) suggested a solution to Jasper's uncertainty problem of finding a final experience.  Drugs were the answer!  He put his hope in psychedelic drugs like LSD.  According to Huxley, people could then find "truth" equating to the final experience over and over again and any time they wanted in their own head.

The idea was captured in his 1932 novel Brave New World.  I have read the book.  It is a disturbing vision of a totalitarian government which has abolished families but mollified its citizens with plentiful sex, drugs, and prosperity.  It in fact advocates sexual contact with pre-pubescent children.  Yuck.  Back to drugs.  The drug in the novel was called Soma, which was also the name of the drug used by the gods in Hindu mythology.  This story element ties drug use to Eastern religion which also seeks meaning to life through non-reason.

Huxley wrote multiple books advocating drug use explicitly; The Doors Of Perception (1956), Heaven and Hell (1956), and The Humanist Frame (1961).  He was so bought in to the idea that he instructed his wife to give him LSD when he was in the process of dying.

                            "what began with the existential philosophers- man's individual
                            subjectivity attempting to give order as well as meaning, in contrast
                            to order being shaped by what is objective or external to oneself-
                            came to its logical conclusion.  Truth is in one's own head.  The ideal
                            of objective truth was gone."

Then they explored other ways to take a trip through one's own head like music and Eastern religion.  Schaeffer says that psychedelic rock music was designed to recreate the experience of an LSD trip and to spread the drug culture more widely.  He mentions groups like Cream, Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead, Pink Floyd, Jimi Hendrix, and even the Beatles doing this in the years 1965-1968.

The first artist to call his music psychedelic rock was Roky Erickson and his band the 13th Floor Elevators.  Roky was given LSD by professors on the University of Texas campus in Austin, TX.  The drug was distributed by pharmaceutical companies and universities early on.  This shows how the intellectuals and elites of society were involved in pushing the practice and ideology.  Roky took to drugs and pioneered many aspects of the psychedelic sound in Texas.  He later spent some time in San Francisco and influenced many of the other musicians in the psychedelic scene.  He struggled with drug addiction and paranoid schizophrenia most of his life.  He had trouble speaking coherently before he died a few years ago.

The next avenue of non-reason was Hinduism and Buddhism.  Within existentialism a "vague pantheism" already existed.  So it made sense to the philosophers to use them as another conduit to meaning and purpose in life.

                            "Young people (and older ones) tried the drug trip and then turned
                            to the Eastern religious trip.  Both seek truth inside one's own 
                            head and both negate reason."

Andre Malraux (1901-1976) offered that the existence of art could give meaning to life.  He didn't mean that an actual piece of art would do that, but that art's existence gave an opportunity for hope.  Later Heidegger proposed a similar answer.  He placed his hope in poetry.  Again, he wasn't saying to follow the teachings of a particular poem.  He was just saying the fact that poets are able to make poetry could show there is some meaning to life.  However, a meaning divorced from reason still.  Others turned to the occult in the same way.

                            "Though demons do not fit into modern man's concepts on the basis
                            of reason, many moderns would rather have demons than be left with
                            the idea that everything in the universe is only one big machine."

Salvador Dali's Surrealism & Mystical Art
Another avenue of non-reason was found in Surrealism which combined one part of Nietzsche's philosophy with Dadaism.  It taught that everything is absurd.  Painter Salvador Dali (1904-1989) started out as a Surrealist but changed his focus to mystical paintings.

In his paintings he would portray a Biblical or religious scene, but would remove the realness of it.  He would paint his wife, Gala, into it.  Substituting her for Mary or other women in the Bible.  He even once replaced a basket of bread with a picture of her with one breast exposed.  Or he would depict Jesus as a spirit with no body.  Or he would change the setting from a normal house or landscape to an invisible house in the sky.  His hope wasn't found in Jesus.  He was using Christian imagery to convey something else.

                            "Dali explained in his interviews that he had found a mystical
                            meaning for life in the fact that things are made up of energy rather
                            than solid mass.  Because of this, for him there was a reason for
                            a vault into an area of non-reason to give him the hope of meaning."

Liberal Theology & Christian Existentialism
Schaeffer traces the ideological roots of liberal theology throughout this book starting with humanism in the Middle Ages and culminating in the victory of secularism in the Enlightenment.  Following this vein, theological rationalism was taught in German universities in the 18th Century.  That transferred to all German seminaries in the 19th Century and into the church at large.

                            "The concept of man beginning from himself now began to be expressed
                            in theology and in theological language.... These men were attempting
                            to synthesize the rationalism of the Enlightenment and Christianity."

Liberal theology was created by applying atheistic rationalism to the Bible.  One example of this was when theologians tried to remove  the supernatural elements away from Jesus in order to discover the real, "historical" Jesus.  That is exactly what Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965) tried to do in his book The Quest for the Historical Jesus (1906).  Strangely enough he was still evaluating the text using reason by asserting that parts of the Bible were either true or untrue, while existential philosophers had rejected rational criticism when studying all other systems of thought.  Schweitzer failed to separate the "real" Jesus from the "supernatural" Jesus.  He found once you removed everything supernatural, there was no Jesus left.

These religious scholars attempted and failed to find universal truth, starting with mankind and logic only, just like the secular humanist philosophers.  Out of this failure Christian existentialism started with Kierkegaard as discussed in the article on Chapter 8. It was brought into full development by Karl Barth (1886-1968). 

                            "reason leads to total despair.  "Downstairs" in the area of human
                            reason, man is a machine, man is meaningless.  There are no values.
                            And "upstairs" optimism about meaning and values is totally
                            separated from reason... here reason is an outcast.   

For review, existentialism puts non-reason/faith in the upper realm and reason in the lower realm of ideas.  The line between the two realms is total.  Faith and reason have no relationship to one another.  This is the fundamental error when compared to the Biblical worldview.  In a tragic twist of events, Christianity was absorbed into existentialism's irrational search for meaning.  Anything and everything can be used in the search for existential meaning and values, because its irrational, it can't be judged objectively.  

Karl Barth arrived at Christian existentialism by applying "higher criticism", which means he used humanistic logic, to the interpret the Bible.  This process attacked the historical reliability of the Bible.  In place of exegetical understanding, Barth taught that religious truth could be found within it through non-reason, divorced from an objective reading.  He rejected traditional Biblical doctrine and created what is called neo-orthodoxy.

                            "neo-orthodox existential theology, ... says that the Bible in the area
                            of reason has mistakes but nonetheless can provide a religious 
                            experience in the area of non-reason.  Neo-orthodox theologians do
                             not see the Bible as giving truth which can be stated in contentful
                            propositions, especially regarding the cosmos and history, that is, as
                            making statements which are open to any verification.  And for many
                            of them the Bible does not give moral absolutes either."

At this point, even using the word God was meaningless. It could mean anything from the God of the Bible to Krishna to nothing other than a word used to create an emotional experience.  They taught that the Bible gives no basis for determining morality or law.  There can't even be a discussion about such topics because reason is rejected.  All that these theologians are left with are their own arbitrary beliefs, which can change day to day based on a whim.  Liberal theology is very much like Eastern religion because it can't explain why evil exists and it teaches that everything that exists is God.

                            "[In Hinduism there is] Kali, a female representation of God with
                            fangs and skulls hanging around her neck.  Why do Hindus picture
                            God this way?  Because to them everything that exists now is a
                            part of what has always been... and therefore cruelty is equal to 

The end point is that even those who claim to believe in God or follow His teaching, don't really believe that God exists.  God is just a word that provides a door to an emotional experience.  There is nothing specific about God to believe.  God can't be known in a personal way.  He certainly can't save you from sins you have committed.  None of that exists anymore.  By their actions if not by their words, they pronounce that "God is dead".  They still cling to religious words, but these religious words don't mean anything objectively.  All that matters is what a person can convince others to believe.

                            "the words became a banner for men to grab and run with in any
                            arbitrary direction- either shifting sexual morality from its historic
                            Christian position based on the Bible's and Christ's teaching, or in
                            legal and political manipulation."

It is scary to think that Biblical language has been used by church leaders to manipulate people for over a hundred years now.  But look at religion in the West, and it is an obvious fact.

Nietzsche Finds Nihilism At The End Of The Path
The journey started with existential philosophy's pronouncement that faith and reason are split asunder.  It meandered through side paths to find meaning in drugs, music, art, and irrational religion.  It crept into every nook of society until it entered Christianity.  Once there it stripped real meaning away from the only true source.  At the end of the path, all that remains is darkness.  The last glimmer of light shines on a dilapidated sign which reads, "God is dead."  Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) found that sign and pronounced it to the rest of the world.

If God is dead, then everything God gives meaning to is also dead.  That is true for the atheist as well as for the liberal Christian.  In both cases there is no specific God to believe in and no personal God to have a relationship with.

                            "when Nietzsche came to Switzerland and went insane, it was not
                            because of venereal disease, though he did have this disease.  Rather,
                            it was because he understood that insanity was the only philosophic
                            answer if the infinite-personal God does not exist."

From the time Schaeffer wrote this book in 1976 until today the situation remains. Mankind has two options only.  Either you believe in the infinite-personal God who is revealed in Scripture and through the person of Jesus Christ, or you can run your own "game plan" erecting a world to live within with its own meaning and foundation.  But as we have seen there is no reasonable basis or a logical way to determine what this "game plan" should be.  If the "game plan" ever falters, what next?  If you are as honest as Nietzsche, the last step is insanity.

If even the greatest minds of Western thought who have followed existentialism end up at nihilism, how should we then live?


  1. This is a very nice overview of the philosophical string. Thanks.


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