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Self-government or Self-indulgence?


Udo W. Middelmann

The Francis A. Schaeffer Foundation

Chalet Les Montaux, CH 1882 Gryon, Switzerland #41 24 498 1656


Reformation Day and Bach’s Cantata Nr. 80 (based on Psalm 46) serves as the background for this issue of FOOTNOTES. The struggle of Luther and others for freedom against both worldly powers and spiritual bondage is well stated in Luther’s hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is our God”. He will secure our life, mind and soul with His powerful Word. The bonds of Emperor and Pope are removed and their ultimate authority is denied. God’s word, the Creator’s explanations, the Author’s purposes become the final authority over a person’s life.

The Reformers built on and advocated access to the text of the Bible, to philosophic treatises on State and Society in Greece and Rome, and to expanding opportunities for trade among a growing population.

They were not the first to struggle for limits on secular and religious power in civic and church life. The King of England had his rights clipped in a charter of liberties, the Magna Carta, in 1215. The Roman Church had its authority challenged by earlier translations of the Bible. Tyndale and his predecessors, about whom Jean Henri Merle D’Aubigne writes in his ‘History of the Reformation’, had translated the Bible or parts of it to give the common man direct access to God’s word and thereby to release him from fear.

The result was a heightened consciousness of personal freedom, choice and responsibilities. This awakening included an increase in national distinctions. Since Rome was in Italy, “beyond the mountains”, let its authority be limited by geography as well. Education and trade led also to gradual shifting between social strata. With the powers of earthly and spiritual guides reduced, answers to questions of daily life were left to personal inquiry, including those of science.

The Reformation reached into every aspect of a person’s life, not only spiritual ones. What a man believed about life, i.e. his origin and purpose, his daily work and social interaction with reality was increasingly colored by the connection between Biblical teaching and immediate personal experiences of his own material and social reality.

Sovereignty, which for centuries resided in the will and powers of Church, was now the domain of personal consciousness. Jean B. Elshtain makes that case well (Sovereignty, referred to it in FOOTNOTES 18’3). Philosophers of the Enlightenment took doubt as the final arbiter of truth and reality. What was initially useful and necessary against false authorities such as superstition, absolutist claims and imposed theology gradually awakened to skepticism, scientific knowledge and popular participation in responsible government. Good things, but also with tentative results.

The rediscovery of the Bible as a text that addresses our minds before feeding our souls opened a view of a confident life under God. God had spoken in accessible language, touching all areas of life in history, in Creation. Jesus, the Living Word made flesh, had bound together Creation, the human mind and spiritual answers from God in the midst of history. (Baroque art and theology in the Roman church gave a diverting alternative, appealing instead more to the senses with pomp and color.)

In that frame of mind, truth can be self-evident, for the link between Self and the truth of the outside world is maintained. Diminish that, and truth becomes personal, reduced to an opinion, no longer necessarily tied to anything independent of us. The protective roof over our heads flies off. The ground that nurtured us recedes. We hold individualistic opinions without enough context or factual insight.

Shop Class as Soulcraft is a startling book from the philosopher Crawford who set up shop to repair motorcycles. He writes that many manual jobs require far greater intelligence than managerial work such as banking and trading. Intelligence is more than mental processing, for it requires initiative to link knowledge to intent, skill to purpose.

Really satisfying work is work that engages one’s whole person with the surrounding world. That world does not present itself unambiguously. I may be mistaken and harm myself out of ignorance of it. The arrogant embrace of Self in manual work is dangerous, because I am always exposed to a defined outside world.

To respond to reality rightly, to perceive it clearly (which is an ethical question) requires an “un-selfing”. “[A]nything which alters consciousness in the direction of unselfishness, objectivity and realism is to be connected with virtue.””[V]irtue is the attempt to pierce the veil of selfish consciousness and join the world as it really is”.

Note that the self-reliance of the craftsman (in distinction to the team worker who is managed by directives of others) and of earlier Americans in their admiration of the self-made man is essentially different from the modern cult of the sovereign Self. An agent wishing to accomplish a task is not totally self-directed, doing things only on a whim or with an opinion. Rather, all agency of the Self, directed toward an end, embraces a purpose that is good for no mere arbitrary or private reasons, but for reasons of understanding the real features and needs of the real world. For instance, a carpenter will limit his selfishness in order to do justice to the type and grain of the wood for a specific purpose.

What is good about the accomplished work is not simply posited, assumed. It comes like a revelation of why one ought to pursue this end, as well as how one can achieve it. Gradually it becomes clear, through sharper perception of the real world, what a good carpenter, plumber, lawyer and banker should be. And that will lead him to become better, more competent. In other words, the reality of the real world, of Creation, will draw us towards greater competence, just like the level of a carpenter will accuse or excuse him at the end of his job. The sovereign Self of each person is limited, affected by the shape of reality!
Now look at the opening lines of the US Declaration of Independence in 1776. This objective world is assumed when it speaks movingly of self-evident truths against the assumed authority of the English king. Certain realities were self-evident to the colonists, but not to the English. (It was not all that self-evident: the former kept slaves for 90 years more and did not enforce the law for another 100!) It was a subjective evaluation.

Therefore, the Self is not a very reliable sovereign! It often, if not always, needs correction. Neither in the crafts, as related by Crawford, nor in politics, nor as a participant in business or the market is the individual Self the final arbiter of what is good and true. Self-evident truth is selected by the Self! Self-government can easily become self-indulgence!

Scripture, the shape of nature and history all show the folly of an individual assuming himself to be free -- a sovereign, pope, king or Self able to make arbitrary choices and expecting to do well.

The craftsman’s choices are limited by the requirements of the work that needs to fit into an already existing, structured world (The walls have to remain standing against the force of wind and weather). The choice of materials requires respect for the task. (Some will do. Others will fall apart).

Does the same not also apply to the ”free market”, which is only free in any way when it is in fact closely limited? What seems to be a contradiction is, in fact, a more accurate description of how markets work. They require the courts of law to enforce contracts and to void them in cases of fraud or duress. The system of industrial safety and rules of compensation further reign in free markets.
“Market forces” only exist within the framework created by such constraints. They were established over centuries by people committed to justice, to adjustments. The real world requires these, whether they apply to the grammar of a common language, to real people and conditions, or to materials for the craftsman. Prior opinions should have been adjusted to reality in 1776 by recognizing the real humanity of Blacks. Legitimate regulations adjust human fancy and deceit to what is wise and realistic. They tie them to objective reality. They do not consist of illegitimately oppressive bureaucratic rules.

When people point to the successes of the market in creating goods and employment, they are talking about a very constrained market – boxed in by legal requirements like compensation, contract and intellectual property law as well as a vast number of semi-legal compliance regimes. Weights and sizes are fixed; industrial norms are mandatory. Markets can deliver benefits when they operate in that framework. Only with such limits to selfish sovereignty in place can market forces prevent a free market in slaves, women and body parts. Without such limits, both socialist and free market economies around the world trade in them.
Intellectual property protection is an example of social justice. Creators of books and inventions deserve their rewards. (China hasn’t caught up to what took centuries to implement.) There are economic and social benefits from such protections in the market, including the encouragement of bright ideas that drive progress across all areas of life.

While we need to be aware of the unwanted side-effects of social controls such as welfare dependency, the solution isn’t to let the problem self-organize into a worse mess. We need to recognize that reality comes with problems, which in turn must be addressed by various “craftsmen”: parents, teachers, pastors, artisans, professionals and philosophers under the direction of rules which lay out ends and seek to prevent further decline into ideologies which produce random evil.

Thinking about what is socially fair is, in the last resort, also our job, whether it be through a large array of special-purpose societies between the individual and the State, or through us who, through elected representatives, are the State. These various entities should seek to adjust flaws of any kind to a more wholesome, reasonable and healthy shape.

The principle of “subsidiarity” involves everyone, but does not depend on the whim of private self-governing sovereign persons. While tasks are better done, as far as possible, by the smallest possible group, a multitude of mutually conflicting “ends” requires an enforceable accountability to an elected and impeachable government. The body politic needs to set broad outlines. They will always constitute a compromise of ideologies, never produce perfection, but will also keep advocates of an “ideal solution” from excess though plain power.

Society should be a mix of co-operative groups devoted to particular tasks, from families looking after themselves and children on up to labor unions, clubs, professional associations, churches, courts of law and so on. These groups should have the freedom to pursue their own tasks and to negotiate with one another who make up “the State”; yet always be bound, like the craftsman, to what reality requires and skill enables them to do.

That reality is “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” within the definition given in the Bible. Physical protection, food, shelter and the Rule of Law are part of it, as are education, training and a stable parental environment. The pursuit of these prizes is impossible when the definition of what constitutes an education, housing, intellectual and physical health, parental roles, or happiness as coming from consumption instead of work is left to sovereign private or personal interpretations
The Bill of Rights entitles us to protection against an all-powerful State. Entitlements express rights which stem from being a human being in need. That should also be self-evident. We need to adjust to that in an imperfect world. We know that human beings need food and safety; that families need time together; that children need parents; and that everyone needs the tools to acquire knowledge about God and his purpose in the real world.

Lest we react too quickly, such a view of social justice differs most forcefully from socialism. Socialism “puts politics in command” to take over every institution, whatever it may be, and empty out everything which distinguishes it from other institutions, turning it into yet another loudspeaker for repeating “the general line”. It destroys the specific institutional fabric of a university, a trade union, a sporting body, a church and gives them all the same institutional content, viz. a political one.

The Christian puts God, reality and needs of a person in a fallen, unfair world in command. He puts material and spiritual substance to the command to love God and neighbor instead of pursuing an ideological dream. He gives opportunity, rather than believing that opportunity exists for everyone. He starts with the recognition of human handicaps together with each person’s exceptionality. The pursuit of social responsibility is not naïve and utopian. It is not enslavement masquerading as benevolence. Christian social reflection is concerned with social reality and necessary adjustments. They pursue neither the ideal of classical socialism nor of laissez faire capitalism.

Neither the State nor the Market is divine, objective or redemptive. We the People as a community are the government. We act on the market floor as individuals. Both areas of activity require voluntary obligations to maintain freedom within a form.

One cannot have one without the other. An unsteady rider will fall off the horse when, leaning to one side to avoid falling, he leans too far to the other. Politics is the next best thing to achieving an impossible perfection -- a matter of finding a livable compromise under the constant electoral evaluation of the educated.

The Place of Government

Isn’t Samuel’s warning against Israel wishing for a king (He till tax you, take your boys to war, etc.) a justification for denial of government all together? Pacifists argue this with reference to Jesus’ saying that the use of the sword would lead to death by the sword. Both passages point to the nature of reality -- choices have consequences!

Having a government is not a major concern. Good or bad, it can be changed, countered and removed in our constitutional setup. Both good and bad governments occur in Scripture. Primary should be the Rule of Law! Let government protect the Law’s rule! The Rule of Law, not government, is lacking in many African or Asian countries. They are exposed to naked, arbitrary power. Israel had the Rule of Law from Adam and Eve on. Cain should not have killed Abel. The covenant with Noah and the judgment of the Flood apply the Rule of Law. The Law of the Ten Commandments brings out the nature of reality: God, people, social relations against all sinful, i.e. lawless, forgetfulness.

Law, not government, obliges each person to seek and to see God and to see each person as made in God’s image. The same law applied to Israelite and alien, master and slave, man and woman, widow and orphan, laborer and priest. The law set out payment obligations for others -- widows and orphans, as well as the spiritual/intellectual class of priests / lawyers / judges would live on funds raised in required tithing. Roads and bridges needed to be in good shape to keep the way open for anyone accused of manslaughter to run to a city of refuge. The communal building of the Temple and the rebuilding of Jerusalem’s walls under Nehemiah all required the existence of a governing body, financed through taxes, collected through tithes. Every Israelite was also obligated to pay for what would benefit others. Labor relations were prescribed (You must pay on the day the work was done, could not keep a man’s coat in pledge overnight, etc.) and judges sat in court in city gates to insist that contracts, promises and commitments be honored.

Government is the result of law, a means to impose its rule. It is not a liberal invention. The need for government was not a result of Israel’s departure from God. In a fallen world, all of us constantly need to be reminded of our legal obligations and limitations, our need to love our neighbor as ourselves.

The New Testament as well reminds us of the lawful place of government. Jesus does not deny Caesar money, taxes, or whatever else bears his image,. The Romans kept roads safe, guaranteed the Rule of Law, brought water to many cities. They accepted and imposed the Jewish rule of requiring two witnesses in a criminal trial. Law ruled instead of fate.

Paul tells us that we are subject to authorities, which use the sword for justice and against evil (Romans 13). He appeals Roman law to demand free passage to Rome after being unjustly beaten by Roman soldiers. In Titus he tells us that we should pray for those in authority. The life of the church is also in the polis, the city, where our life, choices and participation in the markets of things and ideas affect politics, morals and education.

Our neighbors benefitted from law that abolished slavery years after churches and some private people had freed theirs. Public roads, schools, libraries, police and national defense are all results of laws, not private decisions to respect people and their needs. Law, not faith, defines marriage, including for people outside of church. It grants a respectful burial to unbelievers. Laws are in our hands through an elected and constantly confirmed or corrected body of elected decision makers. This gives greater stability against the limits of charity and the whims and revenge of private interests.

Law, not private charity, gave rights to women and children, stopped lynching and set out what is acceptable in the public space. That may often be a slow and wasteful way of getting things done, but in central issues of human life and for a population overall it is far more efficient and predictable. However, private charity or initiative is not hindered by the efforts to restrain public evil by means of law.

The alternative of freedom from law, the Roman res publica, is no longer possible. There is no empty island. We must be in the world, even if not always of the world. The alternative of charitable individual actions will always be an exemplary, but arbitrary, choice. It is no substitute for doing justice, for keeping the law, for recognizing obligations to act for just and lawful attention to each person’s imperfect situation regardless of one’s limited resources.

What do The People Know?

“The People” in the Declaration of Independence of 1776, is a delightful, abstract term. Not everyone was asked, nor did all who were asked agree. The term leant power to the declaration of intent and all those who agreed joined up willingly, fought for their freedom and laid out a constitution of remarkable substance to protect both law and freedom.

Listening to “The People” today is, of course, a political concept, also abstract, assuming authority on the high ground. Even Marxist regimes do that when they call themselves “The People’s Republic of China”. Marxist dogma always claim to represent ”The People”, to work for “The People”’ and to have nothing in mind but the advancement of ”The People”.

However, let us realize that when Republicans now claim to be listening to ”The People”, two years ago Democrats claimed the same. The majority of voters, not ”The People”, spoke then and now. Each party likes to give the appearance of closeness to the average person, ”the middle class”. Each party listens to ”their people” and each of us can choose whose web site and ballot box we fill with our vote, complaint, pain and suggestions.

Since we can easily see through that, we need not be impressed by it. More important is the question of why or to what degree should anyone listen to us, the people? We always have complaints, concerns and worries, sometimes even a good idea. But should a leader oblige our advice, satisfy our demands, just because ”We the People” speak? The keepers of the law, of reasoned insight, of moral clarity should not merely reflect majorities or minorities, but should know what is wise, perceptive and courageous at any given time – sometimes even against the people’s voice and advice.

Elected government should take the risk to lead, not primarily follow; should educate, not become the depository of collected folly. It is accountable to the people for its accomplishment, not for its reelection. It gets elected, in the best of cases, because of better knowledge, not because it has a blog or website for voters to list their concerns. Officials should be chosen because of their careful analysis by which they have more knowledge, have more responsible solutions. We should vote for people who are better than we, not those most like us. We need people who are not swayed by passing fads or favors, who are less subject to emotions.

People bash about; they express their desires, their pain. Yet, like a good doctor who draws on his deeper knowledge and years of experience, the political leader needs to tell us what is wrong, what needs fixing, how it is going to be paid for and what we must do to avoid catching the bug again.

Politics, peace in the polis, the city, requires not so much popular support as popular acknowledgment of the need for uncommon wisdom, skill, and moral clarity. If we would acknowledge that we do not know everything, we would be more likely speak less and listen more. Our curiosity would not be overlaid by our frustration. We would learn, for instance, that the national debt is for the most part not a debt of government, but of the governed! We have spent more than we had. We bought houses too costly for our payments. Our optimism was not based on confidence and our faith had no foundation, bubbling over with expectations.
We would at least wonder whether lost jobs are perhaps due to lost skills after years in failed education experiments. We would learn how much broken, or just plain busy, families create unstable children and how that fragments a life and retards development. We would begin to see all kinds of things rather than join opposing cheering crowds. Much of what we assume would possibly be affected, if only we knew…that we are in a situation that did not have to occur. For, history is a record of things that did not need to happen.

We did not have to let education run away from skills and insights to become that holding pattern for self-discovery called schooling by teachers who often know how, but not what, to teach. We did not have to consume beyond our means; to borrow from foreign countries to subsidize our tax cuts; to throw mortgages at people without security for the benefit of a bubble; to accept increases in income differentials reaching 400:1 over the past 30 years (a situation we previously found only in 3rd world countries, where a winner-take-all pattern profits from the lack of ruling laws!); to believe that banks’ central function is to serve the public’s need for credit. If we only knew….

There is no need to send everyone to college, thus demeaning manual skills and losing the knowledge of to do these jobs competently. There is no need to let the market reign without the awakened conscience of the participants (which Adam Smith taught we all needed!); to allow government to withdraw from the political center to extremes of both right and left; to accept as true the proposition that social responsibility equals socialism; or to assume that Europe practices the latter, when it has, in fact, many variations of social nets, is productive overall and able to produce such attractive things that we import them and thereby increase our deficit.

We would then learn that we cannot fight two wars without paying taxes to support them; that Social Security is not an investment, but an insurance against poverty, which the wealthy (I do not know at what level!) should forgo out of absence of need, just like term insurance pays out nothing unless you die, which you hope you won’t.

A country needs leaders who are more informed than “We the People”. People do not always wish to know when they already have an opinion. In addition, many leaders themselves lack content, overview and moral guts. Lacking is a fuller picture of the nature of reality, which would give discernment of the type more readily possessed by doctors or craftsmen, or parents in touch with their children, explorers of countries, books and ideas. Leaders should be able to tell us what is necessary. Like the tailor with his cloth and needle, the carpenter with his tools, the plumber with his standards, leaders should know from their training, their studies, and their experiences how best to work towards a more realistic end for all.

Listening to “The People” sounds simple and touching, but is often useless. It pleases the public, but does not add to valuable knowledge. Are ”The People” wise, good and compassionate when their education has been neglected, the development of their reasoning abilities overlooked and their moral discernment put asleep in a setting without clear cultural direction, without a realistic purpose?

Listening to “the people” is similar to listening to ”the market” when salaries are set. Yet the market has no moral agency. It does not determine what is right in relation to people’s basic needs in the real world of imperfect lives and untidy situations. It does not protect against producers or consumers ganging up. Deceit always crouches at the door. Paying employees a wage that makes all of life miserable will drive them away and attract others who are more willing to make do with less of life, time, education, etc. That works, but not under the ethic of loving your neighbor, which must certainly include concern for his wellbeing on a level above mere survival. We are concerned about human rights in Chinese factories. Last Train Home portrays the reason for our urgency. Are we not similarly concerned wherever salaries allow for survival, but not for the life of the mind or even the life of a family, i.e. time to love, read, enjoy?

Doubtful Exceptionalism

Both ”The People” and “the market” are abstractions, embraced from a belief that they are good. As participants, we know ourselves better from past and present history. We are not exceptional, but are members of one and the same human race -- children of Adam and Eve, affected by their transgression.

What is exceptional are certain situations and choices, both natural and historical. The Reformation was exceptional. Finding a virtually empty continent, free from distant king and religious bigotry, depending on each other for life was another exceptional situation. But both quickly took on the moral colors of the people with their handicaps, imperfect practices and beliefs.
Israel did not become a new people when they entered the Promised Land, but needed the voice of the prophets to correct their neglect of God and neighbor, their greed and pride. We all may well need to correct our choices and priorities repeatedly in light of newer insights or changed circumstances. We will never arrive at a point of final insight, for we are all sinful, damaged, easily panicked from fear of loss.

Yet the promise that he who seeks shall find remains. Seek we must therefore! Seek wisdom, truth, honesty. Study and discuss what is right in a given situation. For the craftsman there is the right material to be studied, tested and selected to a desired end. Between a man and a woman the seeking takes on the form of getting to know a person one wants to share a life with, “for better and for worse, in poverty and riches, until death [and nothing else] do us part”.

For each of us, the search is how we can serve our neighbor, whom we are to love as we love ourselves. How do we help anyone understand things? We should promote their safety, health and the tools to pursue happiness, finding it a wonder to be a human being with mind and hands, with place and name, with needs that can be partially met, with a mind that can understand something of the purpose of our existence as human beings by a loving, compassionate God, Who is now, as we should be, at work to restore a broken reality.

Some persons are so damaged by their reality, inherited from their parents or by their own choices, that they need the extra mile, the shirt off our backs, the medical attention and the personal touch, the after-school help, the bath to wash off dirt, and the explanation of the basic unfairness of life in a fallen world. Jesus did not ask whether the ailments He healed were the result of lifestyle choices or were ”natural”, deserved or not. The blind beggar may have lost his sight in a fight. Jesus saved the woman caught in adultery and told her to “sin no more” only after He had helped her first.

We have no objective basis for a true judgment. That will have to wait for God’s. We must care for the poor, heal the sick, to have courage to see what can be done, and to leave ”no stone unturned”, i.e. to address in private practice and the public square the reality and the causes that make life so painful for many. It also means not “to leave any turn un-stoned” (A Spoonerism!): a teacher must lay down more than the subject matter in the text book; the medical doctor must also teach lifestyle choices that prevent medical problems; the politician must explain what is desirable, possible and what it costs; the government must explain why it accomplishes so little with all the money it gets in taxes.

Our culture is in trouble. Francis Schaeffer says in the last chapter of How Should We Then Live that a society with only the two values of personal peace (“leave me alone to do my own thing”) and affluence (“let me have a right to more and more stuff, to consumption”) can only be governed with more laws and regulations to impose restraints that will gnaw away at our intellectual and political freedom. Already we are indebted to governments informed largely by other, less humane political systems and philosophies. If we cannot retrain ourselves, they may gain access to do it for us.

The Bible tells us that when sin increased, the law was given. That was from the hand of a gracious God. Other people, societies, market demands, human greed and other variants of oppression may well be less gracious and long-suffering.

A merited attention

For many years we have wanted to make the original papers, correspondence, notes, clippings and background sources for Francis Schaeffer’s books, lectures and films available for our students. The first CD of scanned material was destroyed in a typhoon. We lacked funds and equipment to start again.

On September 14, Deborah and I had the great pleasure of entrusting 85 boxes of the original material to Prof. Bruce Little, Director of the Center for Faith and Culture at South-Eastern Baptist Seminary in Wake Forest, NC. Prof. Little and the seminary recognize the value of the material and made it possible financially and with archivist resources and the library to give the material the treatment which the preservation and digitalization requires.

The Francis A. Schaeffer Foundation retains ownership of the material. Once scanned and digitized, it will be available for detailed study with our assistance only in Gryon, Switzerland, at SEBTS in Wake Forest under the direction of Prof. Little, and at The Hill House in Austin TX under the leadership of its director Greg Grooms.

We are grateful to have found in Prof. Little and his colleagues a group of people who actively work to make Francis Schaeffer’s insights and ideas available to future generations. Prof. Little organized the first conference on Francis Schaeffer in 2008 and edited the presented papers as Francis Schaeffer, A Mind and Heart for God, P&R, 2010. We have found in him a personal and intellectual friend with a profound appreciation of Francis Schaeffer’s views, scholarship and his challenges to our culture.


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