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)
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)
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.