Things Glen Found Interesting, Volume 262

Honestly, this week’s collection of articles has some of the best I’ve seen in some time.

On Fridays I share articles/resources about broad cultural, societal and theological issues. Be sure to see the explanation and disclaimers at the bottom. I welcome your suggestions. If you read something fascinating please pass it my way.

Things Glen Found Interesting

  1. A Biblical Critique of Secular Justice and Critical Theory (Tim Keller, Gospel In Life): “In the Bible Christians have an ancient, rich, strong, comprehensive, complex, and attractive understanding of justice. Biblical justice differs in significant ways from all the secular alternatives, without ignoring the concerns of any of them. Yet Christians know little about biblical justice, despite its prominence in the Scriptures.” The read of the week.
  2. The Church Forests of Ethiopia (YouTube): nine minutes. This commentary by Rod Dreher was what brought the video to my attention. Watch the video before you read the commentary. These forests are a beautiful picture of the way the Church blesses the world around it, and what the Church must do to thrive in the environment we find ourselves in.
  3. Listen to Thomas Sowell (Coleman Hughes, City Journal): “…people predictably line up on opposite sides of political issues that seemingly have nothing in common. For instance, knowing someone’s position on climate change somehow allows you to predict their views on taxing the rich, gun control, and abortion. It’s tempting to dismiss this as mere political tribalism. But Sowell contends that more is at work: that there are two fundamental ways of thinking about the social world, two sets of basic assumptions about human nature, and two conflicting ‘visions,’ from which most political disagreements follow.” Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution.
  4. Some reflections on the media:
    • The Truth Is Paywalled But The Lies Are Free (Nathan J. Robinson, Current Affairs): “You want ‘Portland Protesters Burn Bibles, American Flags In The Streets,’ ‘The Moral Case Against Mask Mandates And Other COVID Restrictions,’ or an article suggesting the National Institutes of Health has admitted 5G phones cause coronavirus—they’re yours. You want the detailed Times reports on neo-Nazis infiltrating German institutions, the reasons contact tracing is failing in U.S. states, or the Trump administration’s undercutting of the USPS’s effectiveness—well, if you’ve clicked around the website a bit you’ll run straight into the paywall.”
      • This is a good article. For the record, I agree with his assessment of the New York Times: it often contains the facts, but sometimes incorrectly framed with foolish inferences built upon them. That burning Bibles and flags thing Robinson knocks, though? That really happened: Did Portland Protesters Burn Bibles and American Flags? (Snopes)
    • How the Media Could Get the Election Story Wrong (Ben Smith, New York Times): “The coronavirus crisis means that states like Pennsylvania may be counting mail-in ballots for weeks, while President Trump tweets false allegations about fraud. And the last barriers between American democracy and a deep political crisis may be television news and some version of that maddening needle on The New York Times website.”
      • This is terrifying and is 100% worth using up one of your paywall articles for.
    • How the Media Led the Great Racial Awakening (Zach Goldberg, Tablet): “During this same period, while exotic new phrases were entering the discourse, universally recognizable words like ‘racism’ were being radically redefined. Along with the new language came ideas and beliefs animating a new moral-political framework to apply to public life and American society.”
  5. On the divisions in America:
    • To unite the country, we need honesty and courage (Robert George and Cornell West, Boston Globe): “Honesty and courage alone can save our wounded, disunited country now. We need the honesty and courage to speak the truth — including painful truths that unsettle not only our foes but also our friends and, most especially, ourselves.” The authors (both Christian) are professors at Princeton and Harvard, respectively. 
    • Remembering John Lewis, and the Political Theology that Changed a Nation (David French, The Dispatch): “What looks inevitable in hindsight was anything but certain. In fact, if you were placing contemporary bets on a political outcome, would you guess that some version of a three-century status quo would prevail, or that the civil rights movement would achieve a legal revolution nearly on par with emancipation itself? At the same time, can we even recall a modern Christian political movement so consistent with the upside-down logic of biblical Christianity?”
    • This is Not The American Cultural Revolution (Tanner Greer, personal blog): “Americans are extremely fond of exaggerating the threat their political enemies pose. Histrionics about Donald Trump ending American democracy are everywhere to be found; readers will no doubt remember the protestors who claimed that Dick Cheney was the second coming of Hitler, or that Barack Obama was a stealth authoritarian socialist.” This is a reassuring essay.
    • Secularism Cannot Sustain Liberty, a Response to Greg Forster (Al Mohler, Law & Liberty): “I believe that the project of civilization in the West, and in the English-speaking world in particular, has brought the greatest flowering of liberties and the greatest opportunities for human flourishing in human history. I also believe that this civilizational project has arrived at this moment of maximum danger after decades of both neglect and mounting opposition. The most fundamental problem is the loss of the intellectual and moral preconditions that make the project of ordered liberty possible.”
    • Could America split up? (Damon Linker, The Week): “I often catch myself pondering exactly what it is that keeps our country together. What do we hold in common? What do we share?” 
  6. Churches and the pandemic:
    • How Two California Megachurches Kept Worshiping (Kate Shellnutt and Nicole Shanks, Christianity Today): “Two California churches were so eager to meet last weekend that when their services began, worshipers erupted in applause. In Sun Valley, congregants filling Grace Community Church’s 3,500-seat sanctuary rose and cheered, some documenting the moment with their iPhones, when pastor John MacArthur opened the second week in a row of in-person services…. An hour away in Riverside, California, worshippers at Harvest Christian Fellowship were greeted with cheeky pink and purple signs that said, ‘Smile with your eyes (and wear a mask)’ and ‘Just leave room for your Bible—and another 5½ feet.’ It was the third Sunday that Harvest met in a white tent half the size of a football field to comply with state orders restricting indoor worship.”
    • Should Churches in California Defy Government Restrictions? A Response to John MacArthur (Gavin Ortlund, personal blog): “To my mind, there are at least four biblical values that should inform our decision-making in this situation: 1. the importance of worship (Hebrews 10:25), 2. love for neighbor (Mark 12:31), 3. obedience to government (Romans 13:1–7), and 4. maintaining a good witness (Colossians 4:5–6). What concerns me about defying the state order right now is that it seems to prioritize 1 at the expense of 2–4.”
    • Masking and Masks: A Hypothetical Interview (Doug Wilson, personal blog): “A free people should be jealous of their liberty. And one of the best ways to be jealous of your liberty is to require the government, whenever it exercises its authority coercively, to be able to give a very specific reason. A general reason is not good enough. The law should prohibit stealing, for example, and when the cops arrest a thief, they should be able to say that they arrested him because he was ‘stealing.’ Negative prohibitions are the foundation of civic liberty, and broad, general feel-good directives are the foundation of tyranny.“ I am not opposed to mandatory masks, but this is a good defense of the opposition. 
  7. Concerning China:
    • The TikTok War (Ben Thompson, Stratechery): “TikTok’s algorithm, unmoored from the constraints of your social network or professional content creators, is free to promote whatever videos it likes, without anyone knowing the difference. TikTok could promote a particular candidate or a particular issue in a particular geography, without anyone — except perhaps the candidate, now indebted to a Chinese company — knowing. You may be skeptical this might happen, but again, China has already demonstrated a willingness to censor speech on a platform banned in China; how much of a leap is it to think that a Party committed to ideological dominance will forever leave a route directly into the hearts and minds of millions of Americans untouched?”
    • Books pulled from the library shelves, songs banned…it’s the new normal in Hong Kong (Louisa Lim, The Guardian): “Put simply, within a single month, Beijing has dismantled a partially free society and is trying to use its new law to enforce global censorship on speech regarding Hong Kong.”
    • Christians Worry Hong Kong’s New Law Will Hamper Missions (D. Cheng, Christianity Today): “…Christians living outside of China now wonder: Is it still safe for them to communicate openly with friends and colleagues in Hong Kong? For years, the territory has served as a staging ground for ministry organizations operating across the region. But now, will they face pressure or persecution, as those in the mainland do? If they are critical of Beijing on social media or in an article such as this, will they be denied entry to Hong Kong—or worse, detained and possibly imprisoned upon landing in Hong Kong?”
    • ‘Clean Up This Mess’: The Chinese Thinkers Behind Xi’s Hard Line (Chris Buckley, New York Times): “While China’s Communist Party has long nurtured legions of academics to defend its agenda, these authoritarian thinkers stand out for their unabashed, often flashily erudite advocacy of one-party rule and assertive sovereignty, and their turn against the liberal ideas that many of them once embraced.”
    • Trump Administration Penalizes Chinese Officials for Hong Kong Crackdown (Pranshu Verma and Edward Wong, New York Times): “The action is another in a series of measures the Trump administration has taken in recent months to ratchet up pressure on Beijing. Last month, the administration imposed sanctions on the Chinese government, including a senior member of the Communist Party, over human rights abuses against the largely Muslim Uighur minority.”

Less Serious Things Which Also Interested/Amused Glen

Things Glen Found Interesting A While Ago

Every week I’ll highlight an older link still worth your consideration. This week we have What Is It Like to Be a Man? (Phil Christman, The Hedgehog Review): “I live out my masculinity most often as a perverse avoidance of comfort: the refusal of good clothes, moisturizer, painkillers; hard physical training, pursued for its own sake and not because I enjoy it; a sense that there is a set amount of physical pain or self‐imposed discipline that I owe the universe.” Very well‐written. Everyone will likely find parts they resonate with and parts they reject. The author is a lecturer at the University of Michigan and based on his CV seems to be a fairly devoted Episcopalian. First shared in volume 178.

Why Do You Send This Email?

In the time of King David, the tribe of Issachar produced shrewd warriors “who understood the times and knew what Israel should do” (1 Chron 12:32). In a similar way, we need to become wise people whose faith interacts with the world. I pray this email gives you greater insight, so that you may continue the tradition of Issachar.

Disclaimer

Chi Alpha is not a partisan organization. To paraphrase another minister: we are not about the donkey’s agenda and we are not about the elephant’s agenda — we are about the Lamb’s agenda. Having said that, I read widely (in part because I believe we should aspire to pass the ideological Turing test and in part because I do not believe I can fairly say “I agree” or “I disagree” until I can say “I understand”) and may at times share articles that have a strong partisan bias simply because I find the article stimulating. The upshot: you should not assume I agree with everything an author says in an article I mention, much less things the author has said in other articles (although if I strongly disagree with something in the article I’ll usually mention it). And to the extent you can discern my opinions, please understand that they are my own and not necessarily those of Chi Alpha or any other organization I may be perceived to represent. Also, remember that I’m not reporting news — I’m giving you a selection of things I found interesting. There’s a lot happening in the world that’s not making an appearance here because I haven’t found stimulating articles written about it. If this was forwarded to you and you want to receive future emails, sign up here. You can also view the archives.

Things Glen Found Interesting, Volume 261

Links to some encouraging stories, some horrifying stories, and some confusing stories. Because it be like that sometimes.

On Fridays I share articles/resources about broad cultural, societal and theological issues. Be sure to see the explanation and disclaimers at the bottom. I welcome your suggestions. If you read something fascinating please pass it my way.

Things Glen Found Interesting

  1. How I Rediscovered Faith (Malcolm Gladwell, Relevant Magazine): “I have always believed in God. I have grasped the logic of Christian faith. What I have had a hard time seeing is God’s power. I put that sentence in the past tense because something happened to me…” Shared with me by a student.
  2. Sweden, Which Never Had Lockdown, Sees COVID-19 Cases Plummet as Rest of Europe Suffers Spike (Soo Kim, Newsweek): “Amid fears over a potential second wave of the novel coronavirus across Europe, new infections in Sweden, where full lockdown measures were not implemented, have mostly declined since late June…. Meanwhile, other parts of Europe have reported large spikes in new cases over the same period, including Spain, France, Germany, Belgium and The Netherlands, which have seen increases between 40 and 200 percent over the last month, according to the latest WHO report Wednesday.” Huh. Reality is complicated and that’s why they make getting a PhD so arduous. 
  3. John Roberts: Inside his surprising streak of liberal wins (Joan Biskupic, CNN): “…CNN offers a rare glimpse behind the scenes at how justices on the Roberts court asserted their interests, forged coalitions and navigated political pressure and the coronavirus pandemic. The justices’ opinions are public, but their deliberations are private and usually remain secret.”
  4. Harvard Creates Managers Instead of Elites (Saffron Huang, Palladium Magazine): “At Harvard, the implicit signal we receive every day is that everything requires a manager. Our extracurriculars, despite varying club names, mostly revolve around administrative work and sending emails. Emails soliciting donations, emails inviting speakers to a conference, emails publicizing your magazine launch with ‘FREE DONUTS’ dominating the subject line. Granted, execution of mundane tasks is necessary for real work to be done. The skills of subtly bumping an unresponsive teammate, deftly achieving a friendly-but-professional tone, and creating Excel files worthy of a UI/UX designer will serve you well in corporate life…. Very few clubs create a generative and imaginative vision for your future self at work, or for what you should be working on. Although this is the stated purpose of a Harvard liberal arts education, campus culture has elevated managerialism above creation…. The result is a class that excels at being judged and excels at managing and executing defined tasks.” Quite interesting and very relevant to Stanford.
  5. The Supreme Court’s surprising decision on churches and the pandemic, explained (Ian Millhiser, Vox): “Unlike his fellow Republican justices, in other words, Roberts appears to believe that courts have a particularly strong duty to defer to democratically accountable officials during an historic public health crisis.” I found this analysis of Robert’s vote quite interesting. 
    • Obeying God Rather than Men? A Constitutional Scholar on What’s Really a Religious Liberty Issue (Ed Stetzer interviewing John Inazu, Christianity Today): “Be people of hope who are known for putting the interests of others above your own. Lament the costs of this virus to human life, mental health, and material well-being. Lament our inability to gather for worship. Pray for the end of this virus. But in the meantime, love your neighbors and seek the peace of the city, even if it feels costly.”
    • We Can’t Roll the Dice on Religious Liberty: Nevada, the Supreme Court, and Churches (Ed Stetzer, Christianity Today): “Nevada won the injunction battle, but churches need to help the state back up and make the right choice. This is the line that every mainstream evangelical group said they would draw, and it has now been crossed.”
    • Christ, not Caesar, Is Head of the Church (John MacArthur, Grace To You): “History is full of painful reminders that government power is easily and frequently abused for evil purposes. Politicians may manipulate statistics and the media can cover up or camouflage inconvenient truths. So a discerning church cannot passively or automatically comply if the government orders a shutdown of congregational meetings—even if the reason given is a concern for public health and safety.”
    • A Time for Civil Disobedience? A Response to Grace Community Church’s Elders (Jonathan Leeman, 9 Marks): “We understand that we are not ancient Israel. And though in one sense all space is sacred for a Christian because all space is under Christ’s lordship, in another sense no space is sacred, at least in a Temple-like way; and the government’s authority also extends everywhere inside its borders.”
    • Further Reflections on Recent Conversations about Christian Freedom (Jonathan Leeman, 9 Marks): “…my article and our podcast tried to do one simple thing: remind fellow believers—as we all venture forward on our politically tumultuous landscape—of the crucial role of Christian freedom when we take these kinds of stances. On this and so many other issues, believers will come to different conclusions about the best path to take. And for the sake of maintaining unity, the unique authority of Scripture, and the gospel, we need to keep training our instincts to have a quick grasp for what belongs in the realm of freedom and what does not.”
    • Our Galvanizing Grandfather (Douglas Wilson, personal blog): “Suffice it to say that the civil government does have legitimate authority around sacred things (circa sacra), but no authority whatever in sacred things (in sacris). And when the government abuses this basic distinction willy nilly, as our governments have been doing in their overt and discriminatory treatment of the church, it is time for the leadership of the church to take a stand. So with all of that running in the background, my purpose here this morning is simply to honor John MacArthur for his leadership in this.”
  6. Interview: Journalist Michael Tracey on Riots & Protests (Michael Brendan Dougherty, National Review): “…the divergence in opinion — between local black and minority populations about the ethical implications of the riots, and the activists/journalists who claim to speak on their behalf — is striking.”
  7. Are Christians Forbidden to Eat Blood? (David Closson, Gospel Coalition): “We can learn at least two things from the Jerusalem Council. First, on matters pertaining to the gospel, there is no room for compromise. The apostles and elders were firm and swift in their denunciation of those who sought to add works to the gospel. Salvation is by faith alone through grace alone; human effort is excluded. Second, grace should be extended for differences that aren’t central to the gospel.” People dunked on this article, but it’s good and deals with an important question that will occur to any Bible reader. 

Less Serious Things Which Also Interested/Amused Glen

Things Glen Found Interesting A While Ago

Every week I’ll highlight an older link still worth your consideration. This week we have Eat, Pray, Code: Rule of St. Benedict Becomes Tech Developer’s Community Guidelines (Kate Shellnutt, Christianity Today): “SQLite—a database management engine used in most major browsers, smart phones, Adobe products, and Skype—adopted a code of ethics pulled directly from the biblical precepts set by the venerated sixth‐century monk.” This article blew my mind. First shared in volume 175.

Why Do You Send This Email?

In the time of King David, the tribe of Issachar produced shrewd warriors “who understood the times and knew what Israel should do” (1 Chron 12:32). In a similar way, we need to become wise people whose faith interacts with the world. I pray this email gives you greater insight, so that you may continue the tradition of Issachar.

Disclaimer

Chi Alpha is not a partisan organization. To paraphrase another minister: we are not about the donkey’s agenda and we are not about the elephant’s agenda — we are about the Lamb’s agenda. Having said that, I read widely (in part because I believe we should aspire to pass the ideological Turing test and in part because I do not believe I can fairly say “I agree” or “I disagree” until I can say “I understand”) and may at times share articles that have a strong partisan bias simply because I find the article stimulating. The upshot: you should not assume I agree with everything an author says in an article I mention, much less things the author has said in other articles (although if I strongly disagree with something in the article I’ll usually mention it). And to the extent you can discern my opinions, please understand that they are my own and not necessarily those of Chi Alpha or any other organization I may be perceived to represent. Also, remember that I’m not reporting news — I’m giving you a selection of things I found interesting. There’s a lot happening in the world that’s not making an appearance here because I haven’t found stimulating articles written about it. If this was forwarded to you and you want to receive future emails, sign up here. You can also view the archives.

Christianity For Modern Pagans: Alienation, Death, and Selfishness

It’s like we’re all watching the same foreign-language movie with subtitles for different films. We’re seeing the same things and can’t understand why we disagree about the plot.

Blog readers: Chi Alpha @ Stanford is engaging in our annual summer reading project. As we read through an annotated translation of Pascal’s Pensees called Christianity For Modern Pagans, I’ll post the thoughts I’m emailing the students here (which will largely consist of excerpts I found insightful). They are all tagged summer-reading-project-2020. The reading schedule is online.

My summary of this week’s reading is a bit of a rant. Buckle up.

I was caught off-guard by this tweet yesterday from ABC News: “Protesters in California set fire to a courthouse, damaged a police station and assaulted officers after a peaceful demonstration intensified.”

It was those last few words that caught my eye: “a peaceful demonstration intensified.” I would have thought the intensification of peace was something akin to heaven, but apparently intensifying peace leads to a place full of flames.

I suppose it is possible that the person who wrote the tweet simply meant that the peaceful protest changed into something violent, but it’s so in line with other language that’s floating around that I suspect it reflects the author’s perspective: peaceful demonstrations are sometimes accompanied by fire and violence.

Perhaps the tweet was nothing more than poorly-worded. Even if so, it illustrates the schism in our culture. Go read the comments on the tweet. It’s like we’re all watching the same foreign-language movie with subtitles for different films. We’re seeing the same things and can’t understand why we disagree about the plot.

Examples abound. Is the 1619 Project is a necessary correction of the standard American narrative or is it a malicious distortion of our history? Is cancel culture even a thing? Is free speech a real value to celebrate in all areas of life, a necessary legal standard which we should construe as narrowly as possible, or a hypocritical tool used to marginalize people? How do you feel about Black Lives Matter? Does it matter whether we are talking about Black Lives Matter as an organization, as a slogan, or as a grassroots uprising? Is religious liberty the cornerstone of human rights or does it deserve scare quotes because “religious liberty” is really a pretext for privilege? Who should be president? How many genders are there? Is the environment on the brink of collapse? Is socialism one of the most ruinous mistakes in history or a hopeful inevitability we should embrace? Can a well-informed and decent person be a conservative? Can a well-informed and decent person be a liberal?

People strongly (and even violently) differ about each of these questions. With that on my mind, two passages from the reading stood out to me. The first is a reminder that the brokenness we see out there is an aggregate of the brokenness that is in each of us.

The problem is not in our systems but in our selves. This is the reason all societies collapse, why the dams of goodness never hold out long against the floods of evil, why the bad people always somehow seem to come to the top. Society is only us. There is no “them”. If there were no such thing as Original Sin, why else couldn’t we ever attain the goodness and justice and joy and peace that the majority of sane people always want and have always wanted? Original Sin is the only key that opens the mystery of history.

Kreeft commenting on Pensee 211 (page 155)

And then, as a cautionary note, this one:

Staggeringly enormous miseries have been the fruit of modernity’s five great revolutions: the Industrial Revolution, the French Revolution, the Bolshevik Revolution, the National Socialist Revolution and the Sexual Revolution. These five revolutions are one revolution: five visible out-croppings of the same invisible undersea continent. Each stems from the same root: the idolatrous search for a new absolute, the divinization of power or freedom or equality or pride or pleasure, respectively.

Kreeft commenting on Pensee 199 (page 135)

I have opinions about all of the questions I rattled off earlier, and I hold this opinion as strongly as any of them: words are better than weapons and ballots are better than bullets. Our disagreements must not drive us to destroy one another or to tear down the society we live in. People suffer when a society collapses, and those who are already vulnerable suffer even more.

I don’t think America is on the cusp of a violent revolution, but why keep walking down this road? Opt out. As followers of Christ let us instead become what I’ve heard called “a creative counterculture for the common good.” As our Master said, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you”(Luke 6:27–28).

Let your peace intensify. Here endeth the rant.

Some other quotes from the reading that stood out to me:

Pascal, Pensee 165: The last act is bloody, however fine the rest of the play. They throw earth over your head and it is finished for ever. 

Kreeft commenting: A story, like a syllogism, gets its unity and point from its conclusion, its end. Life seems wretched and vain because its end, and hence its point, seems to be death, and death seems to be nothingness. Therefore the question of immortality is existentially crucial.

Pascal, Pensee 165 (page 144)

This may seem abstract to you while you’re in college, but Pascal makes an excellent point elsewhere:

Anyone with only a week to live will not find it in his interest to believe that all this is just a matter of chance. Now, if we were not bound by our passions, a week and a hundred years would come to the same thing. 

Pascal, Pensee 326 (page 141)

Related:

Is not our span of life equally infinitesimal in eternity, even if it is extended by ten years?

Pascal, Pensee 199 (page 125)

On a different note:

Secular morality is a plan for the fulfillment of selfishness, Christianity is a plan for its destruction. It cuts to the heart. In fact, it is heart surgery. Clearly, this is going to appear optimistic only to one who knows he has heart disease. No one who thinks he is healthy is going to be happy to be offered a free heart transplant.

Kreeft introducing chapter 12 (page 148)

And a useful reminder that people are the same wherever you go, whether 17th century France, contemporary America, or ancient Israel (see Ecclesiastes 7:21–22):

No one talks about us in our presence as he would in our absence. Human relations are only based on this mutual deception; and few friendships would survive if everyone knew what his friend said about him behind his back, even though he spoke sincerely and dispassionately.

Pascal, from Pensee 978 (page 151)

In my experience this next observation is spot-on:

The greatest liar in the world is still outraged by being lied to. No one is a moral relativist, subjectivist or minimalist when it comes to others’ behavior to him, only his to others.

Kreet commenting on Pensee 978 (page 153)

And I am always amused when someone pulls the move Kreeft describes here:

In Pascal, as in the Middle Ages, the vast size of the universe is used to show forth the vastness of God’s power. The very same fact is commonly used by the modern mind (which ignorantly thinks it is the first to discover the fact) as evidence for atheism! “How could you believe in a God when Man is but a lost speck in an infinite abyss?” Why the size of the universe should count against theism is never argued for, only assumed. For the argument is worthless or nonexistent, but the feeling is strong. That’s where the change takes place: in feeling, in sensibility.

Kreeft commenting on Pensee 199 (page 128)

Similarly:

Science no more proves that nature is not a mother but only matter than an X‑ray proves that a woman is not a mother but only a bag of bones.

Kreeft, introduction to chapter 10 (page 120)

And this last one seems to me to be mostly true. It’s true enough to think about.

How natural and normal is our unnatural injustice! Of course we are annoyed at criticism, even true criticism. Especially true criticism. A man will forgive you for unjust criticism but not for just criticism. A bully will forgive you if you call him a coward but not if you call him a bully. A coward will forgive you if you call him a bully but not if you call him a coward.

Kreeft commenting on Pensee 978 (page 153)

It reminds me of the saying, “when you throw a stone into a pack of dogs, the dog that yelps is the one that got hit.” What makes you yelp? It’s worth pondering.

For this week we’re reading chapters 13 (Diversion) & 14 (Indifference). I think you’ll be shocked at how contemporary they seem.

Things Glen Found Interesting, Volume 260

From naked protestors in Portland to slavery in China to theological reflections on conspiracy theories.

On Fridays I share articles/resources about broad cultural, societal and theological issues. Be sure to see the explanation and disclaimers at the bottom. I welcome your suggestions. If you read something fascinating please pass it my way.

Things Glen Found Interesting

  1. China’s Xinjiang Province a Moral Quandary for the West (Michael Brendan Dougherty, National Review): “The attempt to place modern slaves in the supply chain of Western luxury goods is an attempt to implicate and morally geld Western nations who would criticize or punish the Chinese Communist Party for its crimes.”
  2. USS University (Scott Galloway, personal blog): “There is a dangerous conflation of the discussion about K‑12 and university reopenings. The two are starkly different. There are strong reasons to reopen K‑12, and there are stronger reasons to keep universities shuttered.“ The author is a business prof at NYU. Recommended by an alumnus.
    • Related: Colleges Are Getting Ready to Blame Their Students (Julia Marcus and Jessica Gold, The Atlantic): “Students will get infected, and universities will rebuke them for it; campuses will close, and students will be blamed for it. Relying on the self-control of young adults, rather than deploying the public-health infrastructure needed to control a disease that spreads easily among people who live, eat, study, and socialize together, is not a safe reopening strategy—and yelling at students for their dangerous behavior won’t help either.” The authors are professors at Harvard and Washington University, respectively. 
    • Vaguely related: Your State’s COVID Numbers In Context (PoliMath, Substack): “Headlines are allergic to context and the high-population states get all the attention because they show big numbers (because they are big states). When a smaller state gets any reporting, it is entirely outside any context. In Washington, it was reported that we had 754 new cases and 7 new deaths. Is that a lot? How does that compare to other states?” Very detailed and insightful. 
  3. Coronavirus, Conspiracy Theories, and the Ninth Commandment (David French, The Dispatch): “Christian teaching about our lives in our workplaces is not primarily about how to obtain a promotion, how to invest our money, or how to start a business. In other words, it’s not about the objectives of economic engagement, though those objectives are important. Instead, the focus is on ministering to colleagues, cultivating faith in adversity, and generally learning how to be salt and light even in sometimes hostile or intimidating environments. [But we don’t do this with politics.]” Recommended by an alumnus, this one was really good.
  4. 8 facts about religion and government in the United States (Dalia Fahmy, Pew Research Center): “While the U.S. Constitution does not mention God, every state constitution references either God or the divine. God also appears in the Declaration of Independence, the Pledge of Allegiance and on U.S. currency.” Recommended by a student.
  5. Where is the national news coverage of current surge of vandalism at Catholic churches? (Clemente Lisi, GetReligion): “Who’s responsible for this anti-Catholic violence? Is it Muslim terrorists? Neo-Nazis? Left-wing radicals? Are these isolated incidents or part of a coordinated attack? We don’t know because the elite newsrooms with the talent and resources to handle this kind of investigation are missing in action, in this case.… One has to wonder how these incidents would have been covered had they been mosques? What about public schools? Or say Planned Parenthood facilities?”
    • Related: Roman Catholics: The Original Abolitionists (Paul Kengor, Crisis Magazine): “Last weekend, one of Serra’s mission churches in California went up in flames, with the cause of the fire not yet known. In the last few days, a statue of Mary was set on fire in Boston and another was vandalized in Brooklyn (among others). As to what Mary has to do with the modern anti-statue-racism movement is anyone’s guess. Nonetheless, if the issue is (rightly so) a just condemnation of slavery and racism, and if one is genuinely seeking accurate history, then today’s activists ought to look back in admiration at the impressive track record of the Roman Catholic Church.” The author is a professor of political science at Grove City College. The history of the Catholic Church on the issue of slavery is better than the Protestant church.
  6. What You Need To Know About The Battle of Portland (Robert Evans, Bellingcat): “I reported on the fighting in Mosul back in 2017, and what happened that night in the streets of Portland was, of course, not nearly as brutal or dangerous as actual combat. Yet it was about as close as you can get without using live ammunition.“ A significant qualifier at the end of that sentence, interesting nonetheless.
    • Portland’s protests were supposed to be about black lives. Now, they’re white spectacle. (E.D. Mondainé, Washington Post): “We welcome our white brothers and sisters in this struggle. In fact, we need them. But I must ask them to remain humbly attuned to the opportunity of this moment — and to reflect on whether any actions they take will truly help establish justice, or whether they are simply for show.” The author is president of the Portland branch of the NAACP.
    • Out of Portland tear gas, an apparition emerges, capturing the imagination of protesters (Los Angeles Times): “She emerged as an apparition from clouds of tear gas as federal agents fired pepper balls at angry protesters in the early Saturday darkness. A woman wearing nothing but a black face mask and a stocking cap strode toward a dozen heavily armed agents attired in camouflage fatigues, lined up across a downtown Portland street.” Portland gonna port.
    • Tangentially Related: American Crime and the Baltimore Model (Bret Stephens, New York Times): “Idealists may hope these changes will eliminate police brutality as communities find better ways to prevent crime than deterrence and force. But on the hunch that human nature hasn’t changed, that isn’t going to happen. Criminals, fearing less, will continue to prey on others. Police, fearing more, will hold back from doing their jobs. Those with means to leave their neighborhoods, will. Those without the means will suffer.”
  7. A new intelligentsia is pushing back against wokeness (Batya Ungar-Sargon, Forward): “The anti-woke Black intelligentsia is leading a counter-culture to a woke hegemony and the online culture that popularized it. But their views hew more closely to those of most Black Americans than the new antiracism. Polling has long indicated that white liberals express radically more liberal views on racial and social issues than their Black and Latino neighbors.” Very interesting interviews.
    • Related: The Left is Now the Right (Matt Taibbi, Substack): “Things we once despised about the right have been amplified a thousand-fold on the flip. Conservatives once tried to legislate what went on in your bedroom; now it’s the left that obsesses over sexual codicils, not just for the bedroom but everywhere. Right-wingers from time to time made headlines campaigning against everything from The Last Temptation of Christ to ‘Fuck the Police,’ though we laughed at the idea that Ice Cube made cops literally unsafe… today Matt Yglesias signing a group letter with Noam Chomsky is considered threatening.”
    • Related: When Wokes and Racists Actually Agree on Everything (Ryan Long Comedy, YouTube) : two minutes of brilliance

Less Serious Things Which Also Interested/Amused Glen

Things Glen Found Interesting A While Ago

Every week I’ll highlight an older link still worth your consideration. This week we have Dissolving the Fermi Paradox (Scott Alexander, Slate Star Codex): “Imagine we knew God flipped a coin. If it came up heads, He made 10 billion alien civilization. If it came up tails, He made none besides Earth. Using our one parameter Drake Equation, we determine that on average there should be 5 billion alien civilizations. Since we see zero, that’s quite the paradox, isn’t it? No. In this case the mean is meaningless. It’s not at all surprising that we see zero alien civilizations, it just means the coin must have landed tails. SDO say that relying on the Drake Equation is the same kind of error.”  First shared in volume 159.

Why Do You Send This Email?

In the time of King David, the tribe of Issachar produced shrewd warriors “who understood the times and knew what Israel should do” (1 Chron 12:32). In a similar way, we need to become wise people whose faith interacts with the world. I pray this email gives you greater insight, so that you may continue the tradition of Issachar.

Disclaimer

Chi Alpha is not a partisan organization. To paraphrase another minister: we are not about the donkey’s agenda and we are not about the elephant’s agenda — we are about the Lamb’s agenda. Having said that, I read widely (in part because I believe we should aspire to pass the ideological Turing test and in part because I do not believe I can fairly say “I agree” or “I disagree” until I can say “I understand”) and may at times share articles that have a strong partisan bias simply because I find the article stimulating. The upshot: you should not assume I agree with everything an author says in an article I mention, much less things the author has said in other articles (although if I strongly disagree with something in the article I’ll usually mention it). And to the extent you can discern my opinions, please understand that they are my own and not necessarily those of Chi Alpha or any other organization I may be perceived to represent. Also, remember that I’m not reporting news — I’m giving you a selection of things I found interesting. There’s a lot happening in the world that’s not making an appearance here because I haven’t found stimulating articles written about it. If this was forwarded to you and you want to receive future emails, sign up here. You can also view the archives.

Things Glen Found Interesting, Volume 259

This week contains some of the most fascinating articles I ever have passed along. Definitely worth skimming!

On Fridays I share articles/resources about broad cultural, societal and theological issues. Be sure to see the explanation and disclaimers at the bottom. I welcome your suggestions. If you read something fascinating please pass it my way.

Things Glen Found Interesting

  1. Fertility rate: ‘Jaw-dropping’ global crash in children being born (James Gallagher, BBC): “China, currently the most populous nation in the world, is expected to peak at 1.4 billion in four years’ time before nearly halving to 732 million by 2100. India will take its place.” From a long-term perspective, this is possibly the most significant news you will read this year. Some of you will still be alive when China’s population is half what it is now. And it’s not just China — many nations are on the same path (with only a few sizable ones headed in the opposite direction).
  2. The Coronavirus and the Right’s Scientific Counterrevolution (Ari Schulman, The New Republic): “That so many views tut-tutted as the irrational defiance of expert consensus actually became the expert consensus in the span of just a few weeks vividly suggests that we need to reexamine just how our culture talks about expertise. The problem is not mainly that the experts were wrong—that is to be expected. It is, rather, that our lead institutions and public information outlets continually treated the assurances of experts as neutral interpretations of settled science when they plainly were not.” Interesting throughout. This will likely enter my rotation of classics that I repost from time to time. 
    • Related: An Open Letter To My Fellow Christians (David Carreon, personal blog): “Large gatherings are dangerous with a spreading virus regardless of the reason for the assembly. Some resist the straightforward response to this out of idolatry of church attendance and the church building. Any good thing can become an idol. Gold is good but can be shaped into a golden calf (Exo 32:4). Sex is good but can we can also pervert it through fornication (1 Cor 6:9). A church building or even physical attendance at church can be mistaken for the Church itself. This, too, is idolatry.” David is a Stanford psychiatrist (and a friend of mine)
    • Related: Andy Stanley Explains Why His Megachurch Won’t Gather on Sundays Until 2021 (Ed Stetzer, Christianity Today): “Here is where I think the church needs to think about this: As a local church, we have limited time, limited staff, and limited resources; it makes no sense to focus our staff time and resources on creating a subpar environment on Sunday morning for a nine and 11 o’clock service that only 20% of the people may attend. We decided to focus on the 100% of all of our church folks and their friends and the rest of the world that may show up later.“
  3. David Shor’s Unified Theory of the 2020 Election (Eric Levitz, New York Magazine): “Campaigns do want to win. But the people who work in campaigns tend to be highly ideologically motivated and thus, super-prone to convincing themselves to do things that are strategically dumb.” Super interesting — well worth reading.
  4. Disturbing video shows hundreds of blindfolded prisoners in Xinjiang (Matt Rivers, Max Foster and James Griffiths, CNN): “The video — which was posted online anonymously last week — shows hundreds of men, most of whom are dressed in purple and orange vests with the words ‘Kashgar Detention Center’ printed on them, seated in rows on the ground of what appears to be a large courtyard outside a train station. Their heads are shaved and their hands bound behind their backs. All of the men are wearing black blindfolds over their eyes and they are being watched over by dozens of police officers in SWAT uniforms.”’
    • Related: China cuts Uighur births with IUDs, abortion, sterilization (Associated Press): “While individual women have spoken out before about forced birth control, the practice is far more widespread and systematic than previously known, according to an AP investigation based on government statistics, state documents and interviews with 30 ex-detainees, family members and a former detention camp instructor. The campaign over the past four years in the far west region of Xinjiang is leading to what some experts are calling a form of ‘demographic genocide.’”
  5. Sit With Negative Emotions, Don’t Push Them Away (Arthur C. Brooks, The Atlantic): “In sum, if we want a life full of deep meaning, true love, and emotional strength, it’s going to involve the risk (and often the reality) of discomfort, conflict, and loss. This means there will be sadness, fear, anger, and disgust. If we eliminate negative emotions and experiences from our lives, we will be poorer and weaker for having done so.” The author is a professor at Harvard, recommended by a friend.
  6. 10 Theses About Cancel Culture (Ross Douthat, New York Times): “The point of cancellation is ultimately to establish norms for the majority, not to bring the stars back down to earth…. The goal isn’t to punish everyone, or even very many someones; it’s to shame or scare just enough people to make the rest conform.”
    • The Willful Blindness of Reactionary Liberalism (Osita Nwanevu, The New Republic): “The tensions we’ve seen lately have been internal to liberalism for ages: between those who take the associative nature of liberal society seriously and those who are determined not to. It is the former group, the defenders of progressive identity politics, who in fact are protecting—indeed expanding—the bounds of liberalism. And it is the latter group, the reactionaries, who are most guilty of the illiberalism they claim has overtaken the American Left.” Written before the letter I shared last week, this is one of the best defenses of cancel culture.
    • The World That Twitter Made (Tanner Greer, personal blog): “I suspect an entire class of pundits has internalized the idea that [Twitter debate] is what public discussion is. Of course they don’t believe in free expression, civil debate, the spirit of liberalism, and all of that jazz. To this generation those things are just words. The public sphere they have known has always been a bare-knuckle brawl.”
    • Resignation Letter (Bari Weiss, personal website): “What rules that remain at The Times are applied with extreme selectivity. If a person’s ideology is in keeping with the new orthodoxy, they and their work remain unscrutinized. Everyone else lives in fear of the digital thunderdome.” Recommended by a student.
    • See You Next Friday (Andrew Sullivan, New York Magazine): “What has happened, I think, is relatively simple: A critical mass of the staff and management at New York Magazine and Vox Media no longer want to associate with me, and, in a time of ever tightening budgets, I’m a luxury item they don’t want to afford. And that’s entirely their prerogative.”
    • Illusion and Agreement in the Debate over Intolerance (Justin Weinberg, Daily Nous): “In short, I don’t think society has gotten more intolerant, but technology has facilitated, among other things, the expression of intolerance.”
    • A More Specific Letter on Justice and Open Debate (many authors, The Objective): “In truth, Black, brown, and LGBTQ+ people — particularly Black and trans people — can now critique elites publicly and hold them accountable socially; this seems to be the letter’s greatest concern. What’s perhaps even more grating to many of the signatories is that a critique of their long held views is persuasive.”
    • Liked tweets nearly cost me my university job (Mike McCulloch, Unherd): “To think that I could have lost my career to a single complaint about my liked tweets shows just how hysterical the present social mood is. Now more than ever, it is vital that we — and in particular the universities — stand up for enlightenment principles and replace fear with reason and fact.” The author is a math lecturer (similar to an assistant professor in the US) at the University of Plymouth. 
    • A Declaration of Independence by a Princeton Professor (Joshua T. Katz, Quillette): “I am friends with many people who signed the Princeton letter, which requests and in some places demands a dizzying array of changes, and I support their right to speak as they see fit. But I am embarrassed for them.” 
    • Attempted Putsch At Princeton (Rod Dreher, The American Conservative): “I am a Princeton professor who signed the letter that you wrote about today. I am also a devout Christian and a daily reader of your blog.” Contains a letter from a Princeton prof with a different view than the one above, worth contrasting.
  7. My Time in Prison (George Cardinal Pell, First Things): “There is a lot of goodness in prisons. At times, I am sure, prisons may be hell on earth. I was fortunate to be kept safe and treated well. I was impressed by the professionalism of the warders, the faith of the prisoners, and the existence of a moral sense even in the darkest places.”

Less Serious Things Which Also Interested/Amused Glen

Things Glen Found Interesting A While Ago

Every week I’ll highlight an older link still worth your consideration. This week we have How the State Serves Both Salvation and Religious Freedom (Jonathan Leeman, 9 Marks): “Two basic kinds of governments, then, show up in the Bible: those that shelter God’s people, and those that destroy them. Abimelech sheltered; Pharoah destroyed. The Assyrians destroyed; the Babylonians and Persians, ultimately, sheltered. Pilate destroyed; Festus sheltered. And depending on how you read Revelation, the history of government will culminate in a beastly slaughter of saintly blood. Romans 13 calls governments servants; Psalm 2 calls them imposters. Most governments contain both. But some are better than others.” First shared in volume 165

Why Do You Send This Email?

In the time of King David, the tribe of Issachar produced shrewd warriors “who understood the times and knew what Israel should do” (1 Chron 12:32). In a similar way, we need to become wise people whose faith interacts with the world. I pray this email gives you greater insight, so that you may continue the tradition of Issachar.

Disclaimer

Chi Alpha is not a partisan organization. To paraphrase another minister: we are not about the donkey’s agenda and we are not about the elephant’s agenda — we are about the Lamb’s agenda. Having said that, I read widely (in part because I believe we should aspire to pass the ideological Turing test and in part because I do not believe I can fairly say “I agree” or “I disagree” until I can say “I understand”) and may at times share articles that have a strong partisan bias simply because I find the article stimulating. The upshot: you should not assume I agree with everything an author says in an article I mention, much less things the author has said in other articles (although if I strongly disagree with something in the article I’ll usually mention it). And to the extent you can discern my opinions, please understand that they are my own and not necessarily those of Chi Alpha or any other organization I may be perceived to represent. Also, remember that I’m not reporting news — I’m giving you a selection of things I found interesting. There’s a lot happening in the world that’s not making an appearance here because I haven’t found stimulating articles written about it. If this was forwarded to you and you want to receive future emails, sign up here. You can also view the archives.

Christianity For Modern Pagans: Vanity of Human Reason, of Dogmatism, and of the Philosophers

why Christianity has such a countercultural perspective on sex

Blog readers: Chi Alpha @ Stanford is engaging in our annual summer reading project. As we read through an annotated translation of Pascal’s Pensees called Christianity For Modern Pagans, I’ll post the thoughts I’m emailing the students here (which will largely consist of excerpts I found insightful). They are all tagged summer-reading-project-2020. The reading schedule is online.

This week we’re talking about chapters 7–9, the vanity of human reason, of dogmatism, and of the philosophers.

The thing that stood out most to me is the skepticism that Pascal applies to reason. Recall that he is one of the greatest scientists in history and that his pioneering work laid the foundation for many fields of study. He knows well what reason can achieve, and as a result he also realizes its limitations.

…demonstration is not the only instrument for convincing us. How few things can be demonstrated! Proofs only convince the mind; habit provides the strongest proofs and those that are most believed…. We must resort to habit once the mind has seen where the truth lies, in order to steep and stain ourselves in that belief…, for it is too much trouble to have the proofs always present before us…. When we believe only by the strength of our conviction and the automaton is inclined to believe the opposite, that is not enough. We must therefore make both parts of us believe: the mind by reasons, which need to be seen only once in a lifetime, and the automaton by habit.

Pascal, Pensee 821 (pages 99–100)

This is brilliant, although the translation feels clumsy to me. Kreeft’s commentary on this is helpful:

…once reason has convinced us to believe, we require the aid of good habits to overcome bad habitual tendencies in the opposite direction. Therefore we must act as if we believed, go to church and so forth, thus habituating the automaton to obey what reason has discovered to be true. Habit is not an honest substitute for reason, but it is an honest and needed servant to reason. If we try to fight against irrationality with reason alone, we will lose. We need cruder weapons too.

Kreeft’s commentary on Pensee 821, page 100

This is one reason that Christian community is often so instrumental in someone’s conversion. Reason, like a map, can guide people to Christ but only if they actually follow the directions. Other parts of their self must be engaged for the journey to take place, and these parts are most commonly called forth through relationships.

It also occurs to me that this may be a good way to explain why Christianity has such a countercultural perspective on sex. Sex engages the whole person and can either do so in a way that reinforces the gospel message or in a way that undermines it (see Ephesians 5:31–32 and 1 Cor 6:12–20). Paul lays this out in Romans 1:18–27

18The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, 19since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 20For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.

21For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools 23and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles.

24Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. 25They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.

26Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. 27In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error.

Romans 1:18–27 (NIV)

When people reject the knowledge of God, they must build lives to reinforce that rejection of God. Paul says they do it using idols and sex, and he adds that they suffer for it. Of course they do. They are living based on a false conception of human nature, which makes it inevitable that there will be needless pain. Paula recently had a plate shatter in the microwave. We had both assumed it was microwave-safe, but because we were wrong the shattering was inevitable. The cause of the damage was the interaction of invisible things (the microwaves and the molecular structure of the plate), but the resulting damage was easily observed. Sadly, our culture (and many lives within it) are shattering and the reasons are invisible to many people.

Other thoughts from these chapters that stood out to me:

To reason is to rely on reason, and to rely on reason is an act of faith, not of reason. Therefore reason presupposes faith… Indeed, how could reason itself be validated? There are only three possibilities: (1) by something subrational, like animal instinct (which is obviously absurd: How can the inferior validate the superior?); or (2) by something rational, by a piece of reasoning (which is also absurd: How can the part justify the whole? All reason is on trial; how dare the one piece of reasoning you use to justify all reasoning be exempt from trial?); or (3) by something superrational, by faith in God (which is the only possibility left).

Kreeft’s commentary on Pensee 131, pages 110–111

FWIW, I think Kreeft’s inclusion of God in the third point is valid but it’s really something he should argue for. I think many skeptics would counter that something like the platonic laws of logic could stand in for God in option 3, which is true but doesn’t get them as far away from God as they think. Having read other things by Kreeft, I believe he has had this argument before and is merely announcing checkmate when it is still not obvious to his opponent that the game is over.

You can think skepticism, but you can’t live it.

Kreeft’s commentary on Pensee 131, page 111

Philosophers and theologians do not practice what they preach any better than the rest of us–less, if they preach better than the rest of us.

Kreeft’s commentary on Pensee 142, page 117

Things Glen Found Interesting, Volume 258

Is 650 a lot? it depends. Pennies? No. Murders? Yes. Coronavirus cases? Depends on where they spread.

On Fridays I share articles/resources about broad cultural, societal and theological issues. Be sure to see the explanation and disclaimers at the bottom. I welcome your suggestions. If you read something fascinating please pass it my way.

Things Glen Found Interesting

  1. Churches Emerge as Major Source of Coronavirus Cases (Kate Conger, Jack Healy and Lucy Tompkins, New York Times): “More than 650 coronavirus cases have been linked to nearly 40 churches and religious events across the United States since the beginning of the pandemic, with many of them erupting over the last month as Americans resumed their pre-pandemic activities, according to a New York Times database.” 
    • Are Churches “A Major Source of Coronavirus Cases?” (Tim Challies, personal blog): “If I have $3,000,000 in the bank and you give me another $650, you’d hardly be in the position to claim that you had made a major contribution to my wealth. Similarly, adding 650 cases to America’s total caseload of 3 million is no more than a blip that leaves 99.98% attributable to other causes.”
    • Churches, Coronavirus, and the New York Times (Ed Stetzer, Christianity Today): “It is strange (at best) to use words like ‘major’ and ‘erupted’ when describing 650 cases. On that point, the headline is misleading. Having 650 cases in my county might be news, but 650 nationally out of three million cases is a headline looking for a story. The real story is this: churches are gathering and remarkably few infections are taking place.”
  2. America’s Racial Progress (David French, National Review): “There are two things that I believe to be true. First, that America has a long history of brutal and shameful mistreatment of racial minorities — with black Americans its chief victims. And second, that America is a great nation, and that American citizens (and citizens of the world) should be grateful for its founding. Perhaps no nation has done more good for more people than the United States. It was and is a beacon of liberty and prosperity in a world long awash in tyranny and poverty.”
  3. A Letter on Justice and Open Debate (many signatories, Harpers): “The restriction of debate, whether by a repressive government or an intolerant society, invariably hurts those who lack power and makes everyone less capable of democratic participation. The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away. We refuse any false choice between justice and freedom, which cannot exist without each other.”
    • Prominent Artists and Writers Warn of an ‘Intolerant Climate’ (Jennifer Schuessler and Elizabeth A. Harris, New York Times): “‘We’re not just a bunch of old white guys sitting around writing this letter,’ Mr. Williams, who is African-American, said. ‘It includes plenty of Black thinkers, Muslim thinkers, Jewish thinkers, people who are trans and gay, old and young, right wing and left wing.’”
    • ending the charade (Freddie deBoer, personal blog): “Please, think for a minute and consider: what does it say when a completely generic endorsement of free speech and open debate is in and of itself immediately diagnosed as anti-progressive, as anti-left?”(emphasis in original)
  4. Lazarus Chakwera: Malawi’s president who ‘argued with God’ (BBC): “In the unmistakable cadence of a preacher, Malawi’s new President, Lazarus Chakwera, appealed for unity in his country shortly after he was sworn in on Sunday. The day of the week seemed fitting as the former head of the Malawi Assemblies of God, one of the largest Christian denominations in the country, treated the stage like a pulpit to inspire fervour with his words.”
  5. Slate Star Codex and Silicon Valley’s War Against the Media (Gideon Lewis-Kraus, New Yorker): “The division between the Grey and Blue tribes is often rendered in the simplistic terms of a demographic encounter between white, nerdily entitled men in hoodies on one side and diverse, effete, artistic snobs on the other.” Interesting throughout. 
  6. Christianity’s Covert Success (Mark Tooley, Providence) “I quote an Indian professor who says that Christianity proceeds in two ways, through conversion—which is obvious, that’s how people tend to think Christianity precedes—but he then says, through secularization. And I think he’s absolutely right. And I think that the assumption of people in the West that the secular is somehow neutral, that if you’re secular, you’ve somehow escaped the bounds of cultural contingency, couldn’t be more wrong.”
  7. On Religion, the Supreme Court Protects the Right to Be Different (Michael McConnell, New York Times): “The court may be political, but its politics is of the middle, and of a particular kind of middle, one that is committed to pluralism and difference rather than to the advancement of particular moral stances.” The author is a Stanford law prof.

Less Serious Things Which Also Interested/Amused Glen

Things Glen Found Interesting A While Ago

Every week I’ll highlight an older link still worth your consideration. This week we have Planet of Cops (Freddie de Boer, personal blog): “The woke world is a world of snitches, informants, rats. Go to any space concerned with social justice and what will you find? Endless surveillance. Everybody is to be judged. Everyone is under suspicion. Everything you say is to be scoured, picked over, analyzed for any possible offense. Everyone’s a detective in the Division of Problematics, and they walk the beat 24/7…. I don’t know how people can simultaneously talk about prison abolition and restoring the idea of forgiveness to literal criminal justice and at the same time turn the entire social world into a kangaroo court system.” First shared in volume 161.

Why Do You Send This Email?

In the time of King David, the tribe of Issachar produced shrewd warriors “who understood the times and knew what Israel should do” (1 Chron 12:32). In a similar way, we need to become wise people whose faith interacts with the world. I pray this email gives you greater insight, so that you may continue the tradition of Issachar.

Disclaimer

Chi Alpha is not a partisan organization. To paraphrase another minister: we are not about the donkey’s agenda and we are not about the elephant’s agenda — we are about the Lamb’s agenda. Having said that, I read widely (in part because I believe we should aspire to pass the ideological Turing test and in part because I do not believe I can fairly say “I agree” or “I disagree” until I can say “I understand”) and may at times share articles that have a strong partisan bias simply because I find the article stimulating. The upshot: you should not assume I agree with everything an author says in an article I mention, much less things the author has said in other articles (although if I strongly disagree with something in the article I’ll usually mention it). And to the extent you can discern my opinions, please understand that they are my own and not necessarily those of Chi Alpha or any other organization I may be perceived to represent. Also, remember that I’m not reporting news — I’m giving you a selection of things I found interesting. There’s a lot happening in the world that’s not making an appearance here because I haven’t found stimulating articles written about it. If this was forwarded to you and you want to receive future emails, sign up here. You can also view the archives.

Christianity For Modern Pagans: Vanity and the Vanity of Human Justice

Pascal diagnosed our modern dysfunctions 350 years ago.

Blog readers: Chi Alpha @ Stanford is engaging in our annual summer reading project. As we read through an annotated translation of Pascal’s Pensees called Christianity For Modern Pagans, I’ll post the thoughts I’m emailing the students here (which will largely consist of excerpts I found insightful). They are all tagged summer-reading-project-2020. The reading schedule is online.

One reason I appreciate reading writers from the distant past is that when they make an observation relevant to modern times it is usually more powerful than if it was uttered by one of our contemporaries.

It reminds me of an excerpt from C. S. Lewis’ introduction to a translation of Athanasius’ On The Incarnation of the Word of God:

Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books. All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook—even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it. Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of past ages than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal which we should now absolutely deny. They thought that they were as completely opposed as two sides could be, but in fact they were all the time secretly united—united with each other and against earlier and later ages—by a great mass of common assumptions. We may be sure that the characteristic blindness of the twentieth century—the blindness about which posterity will ask, “But how could they have thought that?”—lies where we have never suspected it, and concerns something about which there is untroubled agreement between Hitler and President Roosevelt or between Mr. H. G. Wells and Karl Barth. None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books. Where they are true they will give us truths which we half knew already. Where they are false they will aggravate the error with which we are already dangerously ill. The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books. Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us. Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction. To be sure, the books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them.

C. S. Lewis

With that in mind, two of Pascal’s observations struck me as especially prescient:

The mind naturally believes and the will naturally loves, so that when there are no true objects for them they necessarily become attached to false ones.  

Pascal, Pensée 661 (page 77)

Hundreds of years ago, Pascal accurately diagnosed the modern American. Our deceptively secular age is full of religion, and for many people politics is their preferred form of worship. Look back over my Friday “Issachar” emails and you will see many examples of the religious dynamics in our cultural debates; in fact, the very first article I ever shared was Joseph Bottum’s The Spiritual Shape of Political Ideas and this week I’m likely to share David French’s America Is in the Grips of a Fundamentalist Revival.

As your pastor I urge you: don’t participate in the crazy of whatever group you tend to vote with. You already have a religion, so you are free to treat politics as significant but not ultimate. Back in the 90’s, political scientist J. Budziszewski wrote two articles back-to-back for First Things, The Problem With Liberalism and The Problem With Conservativism. Read them both, especially read the one that describes your team. You won’t resonate with every critique in either article, but you will find much to think about.

Moving on, I also appreciated one of Pascal’s comments which is relevant to social media:

We are not satisfied with the life we have in ourselves and our own being. We want to lead an imaginary life in the eyes of others, and so we try to make an impression. We strive constantly to embellish and preserve our imaginary being, and neglect the real one.

Pascal, Pensée 806 (page 79)

Reading this Pensée brought to mind Madison Fischer’s assertion that ditching social media was key to her winning a medal as a competitive climber.

“I cared so much about what everyone thought of me that it became outsourced confidence…. I couldn’t step out of the reputation I forged online so I lived in a world of entitlement. Pride in my accomplishments made me content, and contentedness is poison to a young athlete who has to stay hungry if she wants to stay competitive.”

Madison Fischer

She realized that she faced a choice: actually become a more competitive climber or spend her time trying to look like what people thought a competitive climber should be.

In a similar manner, we can actually strive to be like Jesus or we can instead try to become what other people think a follower of Jesus should be. In other words, we can either follow Jesus or we can follow other people. We can follow Christ or a crowd.

This is about more than social media, but it’s definitely about social media as well. You probably know that I am on Facebook and Twitter, so clearly I’m not about to tell you to delete your accounts. But I do urge you to be aware of the temptations they create. Meditate on Matthew 6:1, “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.”

Other tidbits I appreciated:

The atheist argues: “If there were a God, how could there be injustice?” To which Pascal replies: “If there is injustice, there must be true justice for it to be relative to and a defect of; and this true justice is not found on Earth or in man, therefore it must exist in Heaven and God.” Either there or nowhere; and if nowhere, then “everything is permissible”. But not everything is permissible. Therefore there must be a God.

Kreeft commenting on Pensée 697, page 94

And I particularly like this one. It’s true of babies, and it’s true of adults. Different trifles, same psychology.

A trifle consoles us because a trifle upsets us.

Pascal, Pensée 43 (page 75)

Things Glen Found Interesting, Volume 257

a shorter collection of links than those I’ve shared recently

On Fridays I share articles/resources about broad cultural, societal and theological issues. Be sure to see the explanation and disclaimers at the bottom. I welcome your suggestions. If you read something fascinating please pass it my way.

Things Glen Found Interesting

  1. Stop Firing the Innocent (Yascha Mounk, The Atlantic): “Cafferty was punished for an offense he insists he did not commit. Shor was punished for doing something that most wouldn’t even consider objectionable. Wadi was punished for the sins of his daughter. What all of these rather different cases have in common is that none of the people who were deprived of a livelihood in the name of fighting racism appear to have been guilty of actually perpetuating racism.” The author is a political science professor at Johns Hopkins. 
    • This is an essential follow-up: punishing the innocent (Alan Jacobs, personal blog): “…for those who want to effect social change by exposure and shaming, punishing the innocent is a feature of their system, not a bug. It increases fear, which increases discipline, not only of oneself but of others. And every employer who fires an employee because they’re afraid of a social-media mob draws us closer to a fully Panoptic society, a social tyranny with an efficiency beyond the dreams of totalitarian societies of the past.” This reminds me of the classic post Planet of Cops by Freddy deBoer.
  2. The Minneapolis street corner where George Floyd was killed has become a Christian revivalist site. (Ruth Graham, Slate): “‘I would describe this as revival and awakening,’ said Joshua Giles, a local pastor who has been coming to the site to pray and preach for several weeks. Giles, who is Black, said he has taken part in conversions and spontaneous baptisms there, and that at least one woman had been miraculously healed of persistent pain in her arm.”
    • I found the way Graham framed one minister’s criticism of the Black Lives Matter organization interesting. I don’t think it’s an unusual perspective — it was presented on Tuesday by sports anchor (and Columbia grad) Marcellus Wiley: https://twitter.com/SFY/status/1278064470435090438 (three minute video)
    • It’s also interesting to compare Worshippers Continue ‘Unity Revival’ at George Floyd Memorial Despite Pushback (Taylor Berglund, Charisma News). The reports largely align, I’m just fascinated by how reporters’ interests and contexts shape the questions they ask and the answers they emphasize. I am pretty sure both reporters are Christian, although I suspect they gravitate to different churches.
  3. Is Tim Scott the Most Influential Legislator in Congress? (Declan Garvey, The Dispatch): “To Scott, his blackness and his partisan affiliation makes perfect sense: He’s lived the American dream, rising from poverty to build a series of successful businesses. He’s a devout Christian committed to the preservation of religious liberty. But to interlopers projecting their own experiences and beliefs onto him, two of his three core identities are in direct contradiction with one another. Leaning too hard into one elicits accusations of being traitorous to the other.’” Utterly fascinating.
  4. How a Great Power Falls Apart (Charles King, Foreign Affairs): “Faced with a series of external shocks and internal crises, and pursued by more dynamic and adaptable competitors abroad, his country had far less life in it than anyone at the time could see. All countries end. Every society has its own rock bottom, obscured by darkness until impact is imminent. Already in the sixth century, Amalrik wrote, goats were grazing in the Roman Forum.” The author is an international relations Professor at Georgetown. Relevant for both America and China.
  5. Pastors on Social Media (Jonathan Leeman, 9 Marks): “… you are wrestling against principalities and powers, and those powers have keen eyes for your desire for a bigger audience and your church members’ affinity for other forms of social reinforcement. They want you to believe that other forms of wisdom are more reliable than God’s Word, other audiences more important than your humble congregation, other platforms more powerful for speaking, other kinds of impact you can make more lasting and significant. The second you begin to believe these things you have begun to compromise your calling as a pastor.” This is a fire hydrant of wisdom, and most of it is relevant to everyone.
  6. On Behalf Of Environmentalists, I Apologize For The Climate Scare (Mike Shellenberger, Quillette): “Climate change is happening. It’s just not the end of the world. It’s not even our most serious environmental problem. I may seem like a strange person to be saying all of this. I have been a climate activist for 20 years and an environmentalist for 30.”
    • The author’s book is currently the #1 best seller in environmental science on Amazon. This article was originally published on Forbes (where he is a regular contributor) but they took it down in the ensuing controversy. Undeniably interesting. I don’t have expertise in this area, so if he’s wrong please point me to any better pieces you know of.
  7. The Ghost of Woodrow Wilson (Ross Douthat, New York Times): “…unless the endgame of New Haven’s removal of Columbus is the expropriation of white property (Yale’s property, I suppose, especially) and its redistribution to the Pequots and Mohegans, then a consistent rejection of Columbus’s legacy isn’t what my city is embracing. Instead, it’s just doing the same thing as Princeton: keeping the inheritance, but repudiating the benefactor. Keeping the gains, but making a big show of pronouncing them ill gotten.”

Less Serious Things Which Also Interested/Amused Glen

Things Glen Found Interesting A While Ago

Every week I’ll highlight an older link still worth your consideration. This week we have Are Satanists of the MS‐13 gang an under‐covered story on the religion beat? (Julia Duin, GetReligion): this is a fascinating bit of news commentary. My favorite bit: “How does one get out of MS‐13? An opinion piece in the New York Times this past April gives a surprising response: Go to a Pentecostal church.” Highly recommended. First shared in volume 158.

Why Do You Send This Email?

In the time of King David, the tribe of Issachar produced shrewd warriors “who understood the times and knew what Israel should do” (1 Chron 12:32). In a similar way, we need to become wise people whose faith interacts with the world. I pray this email gives you greater insight, so that you may continue the tradition of Issachar.

Disclaimer

Chi Alpha is not a partisan organization. To paraphrase another minister: we are not about the donkey’s agenda and we are not about the elephant’s agenda — we are about the Lamb’s agenda. Having said that, I read widely (in part because I believe we should aspire to pass the ideological Turing test and in part because I do not believe I can fairly say “I agree” or “I disagree” until I can say “I understand”) and may at times share articles that have a strong partisan bias simply because I find the article stimulating. The upshot: you should not assume I agree with everything an author says in an article I mention, much less things the author has said in other articles (although if I strongly disagree with something in the article I’ll usually mention it). And to the extent you can discern my opinions, please understand that they are my own and not necessarily those of Chi Alpha or any other organization I may be perceived to represent. Also, remember that I’m not reporting news — I’m giving you a selection of things I found interesting. There’s a lot happening in the world that’s not making an appearance here because I haven’t found stimulating articles written about it. If this was forwarded to you and you want to receive future emails, sign up here. You can also view the archives.

Christianity For Modern Pagans: Wretchedness and The Paradox of Greatness and Wretchedness

My favorite of Pascal’s thoughts.

Blog readers: Chi Alpha @ Stanford is engaging in our annual summer reading project. As we read through an annotated translation of Pascal’s Pensees called Christianity For Modern Pagans, I’ll post the thoughts I’m emailing the students here (which will largely consist of excerpts I found insightful). They are all tagged summer-reading-project-2020. The reading schedule is online.

This reading includes the line from Pascal that has shaped my thought more than any other of his, “There is enough light for those who desire only to see, and enough darkness for those of a contrary disposition” (Pascal, Pensee 149, page 69). It’s simple observation that explains something we observe every day at Stanford: the coexistence of smart people who think God’s existence is blindingly obvious alongside smart people who think that God’s nonexistence is blindingly obvious.

I think about this observation frequently, and I have come to believe that such exquisite balance is itself evidence of a master planner at work behind the scenes. If a flipped coin landed on its edge once, we would be astounded. If it landed on its edge repeatedly, we would be sure that the coin was rigged. Pascal’s point is that reality is rigged in such a way that strong cases can be made for faith and for doubt. Pay attention the next time there is a significant scientific discovery in an area you might expect to clarify the existence of God, you will see that theists and atheists alike rejoice in the discovery and write about it with great glee. The coin will have landed on its edge once again.

Why would God arrange reality this way? To reveal our heart. As Pascal said earlier in the same Pensee:

‘If he had wished to overcome the obstinacy of the most hardened, he could have done so by revealing himself to them so plainly that they could not doubt the truth of his essence, as he will appear on the last day with such thunder and lightning and such convulsions of nature that the dead will rise up and the blindest will see him. This is not the way he wished to appear when he came in mildness, because so many men had shown themselves unworthy of his clemency, that he wished to deprive them of the good they did not desire. It was therefore not right that he should appear in a manner manifestly divine and absolutely capable of convincing all men, but neither was it right that his coming should be so hidden that he could not be recognized by those who sincerely sought him.

Pascal, Pensee 149, page 68

As I heard a pastor say once, “You get what you want in eternity. Do you want God? You go to Heaven where He dwells. Do you not want God? You will be free of Him forever and will go to Hell where He is not.”

Other sections that stuck with me:

It is instructive to compare Job and Ecclesiastes. For this is the comparison between ancient and modern man. Ecclesiastes, like modern man, has everything and yet has nothing because it is only “vanity”. Job, like ancient man, has nothing but has everything because he has God.

Kreeft’s commentary on Pensee 403, page 49

The two most life-changing revolutions in modern times were the scientific-industrial revolution, which taught man to live and think abstractly, like an angel; and the sexual revolution, which taught man to live and think like an animal. The first knows only the head, the second knows only the hormones. Neither knows the heart.

Kreeft’s commentary on Pensees 678 & 121, page 53

Man’s greatness is so obvious that it can even be deduced from his wretchedness, for what is nature in animals we call wretchedness in man, thus recognizing that, if his nature is today like that of the animals, he must have fallen from some better state which was once his own…. Who would think himself unhappy if he had only one mouth and who would not if he had only one eye? It has probably never occurred to anyone to be distressed at not having three eyes, but those who have none are inconsolable.

Pascal, Pensee 117, page 59