I read two wildly distinct pieces this week that somehow are joined at the hip — I read some more in Kathleen Norris’s book Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life
, and I also read Barry Hankins’ fine biographical study of Francis Schaeffer (Francis Schaeffer And the Shaping of Evangelical America (Library of Religious Biography Series)). The connection might seem odd so explanation is in order.
Our point today is this: acedia is not just the lack of care by an individual; there is a culture-wide acedia at work today. I wonder if you’ve thought about “lack of care” as a cultural issue. Where are you seeing it? [By the way, our next book will be Andrew Hamilton,
Seeing Gray in a World of Black and White: Thoughts on Religion, Morality, and Politics.]
Now to Norris and Schaeffer.
Francis Schaeffer, a fundamentalist pastor who emerged out of some
historic battles between warring camps in the Reformed world, was led
to pastoral work in Europe (Switzerland) that quickly became
intellectual pastoral work with students and others who wanted to
resolve central cultural challenges to the Christian faith. Schaeffer’s
influence on American evangelicalism in the late 60s, the 70s and early
80s is far more powerful than many today realize — and this book is
worth the read for anyone who doesn’t know just how influential he was.
I remember the days and know how influential he was on my own college
days. Schaeffer awakened many to an intellectual life … even if many
came to disagree with much of what he had to say.
Schaeffer’s life, according to Hankins, can (and he refuses to be simplistic here) be traced in three big periods: the fundamentalism days of his seminary and early pastoring, the European days when he expanded his ideas into a broader evangelicalism concerned with understanding and responding to culture, and then his return to the USA where he entered into the fray of being the intellectual force behind what became the Moral Majority. And Hankins records some fascinating correspondence (and disagreement) of Schaeffer with a young Mark Noll and George Marsden.
But it is that European cultural criticism of Schaeffer, where he was at his best, even if he often lacked nuance, that concerns the themes of Kathleen Norris. Schaeffer found a culture and Western world that had shut itself off from grace by becoming absorbed with nature, and it led to his famous line: there is “death in the city.” Schaeffer also challenged thousands — many of them future leaders and thinkers — to take up the task of cultural criticism with theological vigor and confidence.
What Schaeffer calls “death in the city” Norris sees as cultural acedia. Notice these words of hers, which struck me as the same point Schaeffer was making: “Whenever we focus on the foibles of celebrities to the detriment of learning more about the real world — the emergence of fundamentalist religious and nationalist movements, the economic factors endangering our reefs and rain forests, the social and ecological damage caused by factory farming — acedia is at work” (130). This is not about being busy: “workaholic habits … erode the spirit” (123). It is this capacity to penetrate into the very fabric of society that drove Schaeffer.
Norris quotes Alasdair MacIntyre with words that profoundly make our point: “It is clear that we lack an adequate concept of evil … because we lack any adequate concept of good” (126). “Indeed!,” Schaeffer might have said.