Russell and Duenes

Schaeffer: Downstairs and Upstairs Knowledge

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schaefferIn addition to talking about “universals” and “particulars,” Schaeffer discusses what he calls “downstairs knowledge” and “upstairs knowledge.” Downstairs knowledge is that which has to do with “mathematical knowledge,” that is, what we might think of as scientific knowledge. Of this “downstairs knowledge,” Schaeffer writes:

In the downstairs area, which modern man ascribes to rationality and concerning which he talks with meaningful language, he can see himself only as a machine, a totally determined machine, and so he has no way to be sure of knowing even the natural world.

“Upstairs knowledge” is the arena of the spiritual, the soul-ish part of man, or what modern man might pejoratively call the “nonrational” part of us, the area where we deal with meaning and values. Schaeffer argues that modern man has largely said that “there is only silence upstairs,” that is, in the upstairs life. . .

. . . modern man is without categories, for categories are related to reason and antithesis. In the upstairs he has no reason to say that this is right as opposed to that being wrong. . . But notice it is more profound and more horrible. Equally, living upstairs he has no way to say that this is true as opposed to that which is non-true.

In other words, the only thing that modern man said we could “know” was mathematical or scientific knowledge, that which could be measured, tested, evaluated with our five senses. Everything else was merely opinion, at best. This loss of moral and/or spiritual knowledge is teased out more thoroughly in Dallas Willard’s wonderful book, Knowing Christ Today: Why We Can Trust Spiritual Knowledge.

According to Willard, moral and spiritual knowledge, “upstairs knowledge,” was “relocated, by subtle increments within a long drawn-out process, into the domain of feelings and cultural traditions, where they could not be taught by the acknowledged institutions of knowledge [e.g., the public schools and secular universities] as a body of knowledge. This is what we mean when we speak here of the ‘disappearance of moral knowledge.'” (emphasis his).

Willard goes on:

     The inner dynamics of a nonphysical ‘soul’ or person responsibly weaving its own life together by choosing to follow rationally grounded moral insights or traditional teachings from the Bible disappeared from possible cognitive view – it was not thought to be ‘scientific’ – and with it disappeared the moral knowledge that had from the beginning taken [the human person] as its subject matter. Moral knowledge naturally disappears when its subject matter disappears. (emphasis mine)

Post-modern man has taken things a step further than modern man, as Schaeffer’s line of thought predicted, leading us to the place where bare mathematical knowledge is about all that appears to be left. Even the scientist has lost his or her epistemological basis for saying much of anything is true or false, fact or non-fact. Science is thus being reduced to a cudgel or bludgeon, a will-to-power by which to impose social policy. Whatever the current cultural elites in power happen to want to impose, they simply say that it is “scientific” or “evidence-based,” (See, for example, climate change, sex/contraceptive education, parenting, health care. Just say that it’s “evidence-based” or “based on science” and that’s supposed to be the end of the discussion). What counts as actual evidence or “truth” is largely left out of it.

The upshot is that we have this great cleavage in our culture over what is considered “knowledge” or “fact” or “evidence-based” and what counts merely as “your opinion” or “your feelings.” Spiritual truth – as presented in the Bible, through the created order, and embodied in the person of Jesus Christ – counts widely today as mere opinion, something you’re entitled to hold very privately. But certainly don’t begin talking about it, teaching it and living it out in the public arena as though it is true knowledge. As Schaeffer says, “In the ‘upper story’ [Wittgenstein] put silence, because you could not talk about anything outside of the known world of natural science. But man desperately needs values, ethics, meanings to it all. Man needs these desperately, but there is only silence there.”

So what is Schaeffer’s prognosis, given the above situation? “Modern man is left either downstairs as a machine with words that do not lead either to values or facts but only to words, or he is left upstairs in a world without categories in regard to human values, moral values, or the difference between reality and fantasy. Weep for our generation!”

We might weep if we felt more deeply the implications, as I believe Schaeffer did. We should also see this as an opportunity, for mankind is still in the image of God. Nothing changes that. Thus, the “God-shaped vacuum” to which St. Augustine referred still resides in us, and there are still men, women and children hungering and thirsting for the life-giving knowledge of the gospel, hungering to know it as “true truth,” to borrow Schaeffer’s term. To be lost in a world without knowledge is to be lost indeed.

As Dallas Willard says, the prescription is that “our opponents,” along with the rest of the world, “must see people and communities of people in which [Christ] lives today.” This is the epistemology of life, grace and truth . . . water for our souls.



Written by Michael Duenes

December 21, 2014 at 10:20 am

2 Responses

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  1. I discovered Francis Schaeffar quite recently and his lectures have been insightful to say the least. He gives a chilling description of post-modern man’s dilemma but also how the beauty of the gospel solves that dilemma.


    December 21, 2014 at 12:27 pm

    • Here, here!


      russell and duenes

      December 21, 2014 at 2:22 pm

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