One of my favorite books on Christianity is actually three books: The Francis A. Schaeffer Trilogy. The Trilogy consists of three of Schaeffer's works in one volume: The God Who Is There, Escape from Reason and He Is There and He Is Not Silent.
Recently, I have been reading another Schaeffer book, How Should We Then Live?, subtitled "The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture". In this book, Schaeffer examines the way in which cultural worldviews have led to the rise and decline of various civilizations. The first chapter tackles the fall of the Roman Empire and the lessons about world views to be learned from the history of ancient Rome. In addition to the book, Schaeffer has also produced a video series by the same name.
Yesterday, I learned that that the first tape of the video series is available on the Internet here. The series, as is common for Schaeffer's works, assumes that the reader/viewer has a working knowledge of history and philosophy since they both mention things in passing that really deserve more insight and thought.
Among the thoughts brought out in the video (and echoed in the book) is the idea that part of the cause of the fall of the Roman Empire was the lack of an infinite upon which to base the morals for the society. If the base for morality is anything less than "the infinite" then the morals will insufficienty grounded for maintaining a culture. Schaeffer contends that the Roman Empire is an illustration of this simple truth. For example, he points out that the Romans tried to build society upon their gods, but their gods were little more than amplified humanity and finite and therefore lacked the infiniteness needed to support a moral structure.
In the book version of How Should We Then Live?, Schaeffer notes the following (emphasis added):
The Greeks and later than Romans also tried to build society upon their gods. But these gods were not big enough because they were finite, limited. Even all their gods put together were not infinite. Actually, the gods in Greek and Roman thinking were like men and women larger than life, but not basically different from human men and women. As one example among thousands, we can think of the statue of Hercules, standing inebriated and uninating. Hercules was the patron go of Herculaneum which was destroyed at the same time as Pompeii. The gods were amplified humanity, not divinity. Like the Greeks, the Romans had no infinite god. This being so, they had no sufficient reference point intellectually; that is, they did not have anything big enough or permanent enough to which to relate either their thinking or their living. Consequently, their value susytem was not strong enough to bear the strains of life, either individual or political. All their gods put together could not give them a sufficient base for life, morals, values and final decisions.
Schaeffer believes that history teaches that a society that does not recognize a god who is personal and infinite is doomed to failure because their base of morality and culture isn't big enough. In the video, he likens the situation to the Roman bridges that were built by the Roman Empire to span various lakes and streams throughout Europe. The bridges served their purpose for a time, but they are not sufficiently sound enough to support the weight of a 2-ton truck. By the same token, while the moral and societal rules that were based on smaller finite gods or the polis or Caesar or any number of other things may be big enough for a time, they cannot stand for long.
This led me to wondering: is our own society's relativistic leanings going to lead to the fall of Western civilization? After all, relativism -- which is the end result of any moral system not based on a personal and infinite god -- is the weakest of all possible basis for a moral or cultural system. The relativist would say no, we are evolving towards a better system of morality. But that seems to me to be the result of wishful thinking. Looking at the newspaper, I cannot help but notice that while we may be improving technologically, we are failing utterly in other areas such as morality. Can anyone looking at our society (especially as reflected in our cultural leaders in movies and records) claim that our society is more morally upright today than it was 50 years ago? Freer, yes; morally improved, no.
I encourage everyone to watch the first tape of the series for some interesting insight into the history of Western culture as reflected in the Roman world.