Philosophy Saves Lives! How Should We Then Live, pt. 1

Note: This series is intended to be a pocket commentary on How Should We Then Live by Francis Schaeffer. If you’ve worked through the book or video sessions on your own or in a Classical Conversations Challenge II class, I welcome your comments and ideas below. 

A few months ago I listened to the audio version of the book Columbine by David Cullen. While I sanded and repainted the garage doors and then tried to create some order in the garden, I listened as the author discussed, in horrifying detail, how two boys killed thirteen other people and injured many others. The ripple effect of their actions will continue for years to come. In addition to the destruction they caused so many, they took their own lives. Why did two high school kids carry out a very deliberate attack in which they hoped to blow up the school and kill hundreds of people at once? They did it because the lens they viewed the world through was completely skewed. They could not see reality and didn’t even have the tools to measure it.

One of the boys was probably a psychopath. But I was dismayed to hear that the second boy struggled for several years to find a faith in God and thought about what this might mean to him personally. He wrestled with what love meant, and he wanted it. He seemed to have a conscience. He tried hard to find meaning in life and find his own place in the world, but when he couldn’t do that, he reasoned that one choice was as good as another. Why not death—for himself and for others? Was life even real, or was it all a game?

As I listened it hit me: philosophy saves lives! It is urgent that we know who we are and why we’re here. It’s urgent that kids realize not just what they believe about life and the world, but what others have believed about it, and how those beliefs looked when they were fully developed. Worldview is a little like fashion. Bangs can be cool…but bangs teased to a six-inch height and sprayed motionless are just ridiculous and weird. At least the worst that happens if you take a fashion trend too far is that someday you may laugh at pictures of yourself wearing those skin-tight leopard-printed leggings. But what if you unthinkingly follow the popular trends about life’s meaning without realizing where they’ll take you? That isn’t so funny later. Wrong thinking can mess up your entire future.

So, how do we decide what matters, and how we should live? Do we do it on the basis of someone else’s script? Do we figure it out on our own and make up our own rules? The last choice may seem like freedom, but there’s a sinister side to this idea, and in the book How Should We Then Live, Christian philosopher and theologian Francis Schaeffer clearly lays out what it is. If human beings are not created and governed by a good God, we are simply another animal on planet earth, essentially machines. We aren’t intrinsically unique or special. This is a harsh truth. If it is truth.

I first read How Should We Then Live and watched the video series while preparing to tutor a small group of teens in Western Cultural History at a homeschool coop called Classical Conversations. I watched the videos with growing excitement. I love art and history, and suddenly both made more sense than they ever had. I started the semester eager to share Schaeffer’s mind-blowing ideas with the boys in my class.


The boys slept through the videos and laughed at Francis Schaeffer’s lederhosen and sheepskin coat. They couldn’t get past his erudite language to understand the book, either, partly because even though they were more well-read than most of their peers, they didn’t catch all the historical and cultural references. They seemed interested in the art and music history we learned and participated eagerly in discussions about that, and about another book we read together called State of the Arts by Gene Veith, but sadly, I never could get them very interested in Schaeffer, whose brilliant work tied the whole course  together. But it was something I couldn’t forget. I knew I needed to delve into it more deeply.

In the summer of 2015, during a trip to Italy and Switzerland, I visited L’Abri in Huemoz, Switzerland, where Francis Schaeffer lived and worked. (It’s got to be one of the most beautiful places on earth.) And in an attempt to better understand the ideas contained in How Should We Then Live, I’ve spent many hours studying each chapter. In this series of blog posts, I’d like to talk about each section of the book and also discuss methods for helping to relate the concepts to a generation that desperately needs to understand them. If you’ve read it, please join the discussion. If you’re a Classical Conversations tutor, I’d love to hear your experiences in sharing this material with your students. If you’ve never read the book but feel like up to a mental workout, by all means, give it a try.

So, friends, how do we live? Let’s find out. Ready, set, go!

Continue to pt. 2 here:

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