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)