True Spirituality is the fruit of Francis Schaeffer’s reconsideration of Christianity after ten years of serving as a pastor. Schaeffer had reached a point of desperation. “A problem came to me,” he writes in the preface,
the problem of reality. This had two parts: first, it seemed to me that among many of those who held the orthodox position one saw little reality in the things that the Bible so clearly said should be the result of Christianity. Second, it gradually grew on me that my own reality was less than it had been in the early days after I had become a Christian. I realized that in honesty I had to go back and rethink my whole position.
So he did. He backed up to agnosticism, and evaluated whether his beliefs were legitimate, and whether Christianity made any real difference. The results include this book, a long list of other writings, and the founding of what was to become the thriving ministry of L’Abri in the Swiss Alps.
The basic structure of this book is to demonstrate, first, that there are thoroughly sufficient rational reasons for belief in “the infinite-personal God,” and the truth of Christianity. It satisfies the basic questions humanity struggles with. But to me the real reward was the second half of the book, where Schaeffer discusses living it out — not in the way it often looks in its institutional forms, but in our conscience, our thought lives, our psychology, and our relationships with one another.
Schaeffer is thoroughly rational, and once he’s established the intellectual basis for faith, he returns to it again and again as the ground from which we move into the new life. Mind renewal is largely a matter of making a conscious mental effort to remind ourselves of what we’ve assented to as truth. It’s not a mystical experience, or a thing that happens to someone magically after they say the sinner’s prayer. As we make this effort, we can expect divine aid, and life change from the inside out.
But he’s not an “intellectual” in the sense of finding satisfaction in ideas for their own sake. What matters most is the fruit borne by “true spirituality” — love. Our lives, and the church, should run according to biblical principles, but above all they should exhibit the reality of the supernatural by showing human beings loving one another.
My hairdresser asked me once, “What is there at church that someone from outside would want?” Good question, unfortunately. She cuts hair for pastors and “good churchpeople” all the time (including me), and to her it sounds like any unpleasant political institution or dysfunctional family. Schaeffer helps to explain why this is so often the case, and as L’Abri so beautifully demonstrated, he and his wife founded a community that represented a true, countercultural, biblical church in action.
What did I like best? I liked Schaeffer’s frequent reminders that God never relates to us mechanically (or legally, or officially), but always personally — and so we are to relate to each other. It struck a responsive chord in me, because of my accumulated frustration with programmed and systematized and corporatized Christianity. “If there is no demonstration in our attitude toward other men that we really take seriously the person-to-person relationship, we might as well keep quiet,” he writes.
I also liked the humility Schaeffer exemplifies himself, and encourages in his readers. “Each time I see something wrong in others, it is dangerous, for it can exalt self, and when this happens, my open relationship with God falls to the ground,” he writes. “So when I am right, I can be wrong.” Whether we’re relating to our children, or to others who’ve injured us, or to a spouse, or to superiors, we’re on equal footing as creatures, and have no ground to swing into either inferiority or superiority.
Above all, perhaps it was the grace of Schaeffer’s picture that was most satisying. More clearly than I’ve seen it in a long time, I see the distinction between perfection and beauty. Schaeffer frequently describes truth in aesthetic terms, and it helps me to lay aside the perfectionism that tends to destroy joy and discover new eyes. “How beautiful Christianity is,” Schaeffer exults, “– first, because of the sparkling quality of its intellectual answers, but second, because of the beautiful quality of its human and personal answers. And these are to be rich and beautiful. A crabbed Christianity is less than orthodox Christianity.”
Although my natural (self-indulgent) tastes lead me to fiction, I’m grateful to have read this. It rocked the Christian landscape when it was first published in 1971, and reading it is a beneficial earthquake in my inner life in 2008. It’s really not possible to do it justice here, other than to offer a heartfelt recommendation to any Christian whose paradigms need to be excavated and restored.