Tag Archives: Francis Schaeffer

Should You Perceive Meaning in Nature?


If humans can manipulate some aspect of nature—in other words, if humans find a way to perform godlike miracles with the building blocks of, say, biology—does that mean whatever’s manipulable has no meaning? And, implicitly, has no divine origin? Along those lines, I recently found a quotation from one of the Inklings, and I thought the idea was worth wrestling with.

In the 1970s, Owen Barfield—a close friend of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien— wrote: “Amid all the menacing signs that surround us in the middle of this twentieth century, perhaps the one which fills thoughtful people with the greatest sense of forboding is the growing sense of meaninglessness. It is this which underlies most of the other threats. How is it that the more able man becomes to manipulate the world to his advantage, the less he can perceive any meaning in it?”

Isolate the assumption in that question and convert it into a statement: “The more able man becomes to manipulate the world to his advantage, the less he can perceive any meaning in it.”

I’m inclined to agree, probably because I’ve read enough of Lewis to get an inevitable splash of Barfield, but how true is that statement, really? Is it true often enough, generally enough?

Probably, but then why?

Maybe the more “we” (some group within the human race) find nature manipulable, the more we assume its value is reducible. In other words, maybe humans once assumed nature was set by God in some inviolable way, and when we realized we could manipulate it, suddenly nature seemed violable, therefore less valuable, less absolute, less a reflection of divinity.

The more it can be manipulated, we assume (perhaps unconsciously), the less it must be a creation of a divine power, and if something has less value, it seems to mean less (the way value is applied and understood and designated is a lot to think about). If some divinity made nature, why would mere mortals be able to mess with it?

But along those lines, the ability to manipulate is not a simple either-or situation. It has matters of degree. Should our ability to manipulate nature (a big, abstract ability) be any more surprising than our ability to make a salad from wild vegetables? To make a shelter from trees and branches?

But then there’s that popular Internet meme: “The sciences can tell you how to clone a T-Rex. The humanities can tell you why that might not be a good idea.”

At any rate, I’m not sure Barfield was precisely correct in the above quotation. It could be that, on a popular level, certain assumptions about nature, science, and progress became “viral” before the Internet was part of our daily lives. (Late evangelical thinker Francis Schaeffer, decades before the Internet, once suggested that Americans get their opinions like they catch cold viruses—they’re not sure where they got those opinions, but they certainly got them.) So certain assumptions—and maybe inclinations of attitude—made Western people less likely to perceive meaning, but maybe not less able. Not less able, just less inclined.

Furthermore, whether from a metaphysical point of view or a naturalistic point of view, wouldn’t nature have to be meaningful?

Christianity’s tension between ideas & practices; Ken Myers & James K.A. Smith talk it out


I loved the way Francis Schaeffer engaged ideas. However, ideas can be overemphasized, both in apologetics and church life.

What follows are excerpts from a conversation between Mars Hill Audio Journal‘s Ken Myers and Calvin College philosopher James K.A. Smith.

MYERS: The concern that I had — and I had this concern with Schaeffer — is that, Schaeffer makes it sound like all of Western history is a kind of excretion of practices which were purely based on ideas, rather than a complicated intermix between ideas, and economic and technical developments — and particularly economic developments. Well, anyway, this is taking us …

SMITH: Well, it’s interesting … I find this conversation about the relationship between practice and ideas really important, and I find it important for the church … that dialectic between practice and reflection is exactly the process of sanctification.

MYERS: Exactly … We participate in practices before we know what we are going to learn from them.

SMITH: Yeah. Yeah.

MYERS: We don’t participate in practices because we’ve learned all the things they represent, and now having signed the contract that we agree with all these things, we’re going to now do them.

(From Mars Hill Audio Journal, Volume 82)

This reminds me of a quotation by another contemporary Christian philosopher, Linda Zagzebski, from a personal essay she wrote for the book Philosophers Who Believe:

“The natural order of religious belief is not usually to form propositional beliefs first and only later to engage in the faith life of a community. If we disengaged ourselves from the practice of faith in order to ‘find out’ if it is justified, there is very little chance that we will ever find out.”

I think these things can, in part, point to the value of liturgical worship. Participation in liturgy is a kind of externalized practice that can work in conjunction with ideas to develop a whole person.