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)


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.

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

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)

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

Christianity For Modern Pagans: Order & Method

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.

The theme that seems most important to me from this first week’s readings (the preface and the chapters Order & Method) is the need to understand the heart behind someone’s skepticism. We must genuinely love our skeptical friends if we are to persuade them.

Their intellectual questions are real and have to be answered honestly, but the cries of the heart (Christianity is intolerant, faith is for ignorant people, becoming a Christian would make me into someone I wouldn’t like, following Jesus would mean abandoning fun) are far more important.

I find when I speak with unbelievers on campus their first questions to me are often tests: they want to see how I respond to purely intellectual inquiries before they begin raising the issues that really keep them from faith. And sometimes they don’t even know the real reasons they won’t consider Christianity. A reply I’ve found helpful is, “I’ll answer your question as best I can, but I’m curious: if I answer it to your satisfaction will you seriously consider becoming a Christian? If not, what would still hold you back?”

What do you think Stanford students’ biggest heart objections are to Christianity? I’m curious what you notice as you speak with your friends.

And now a few excerpts from the reading I particularly enjoyed:

In the past, the difficulty in accepting Christianity was its second point, salvation. Everyone in premodern societies knew sin was real, but many doubted salvation. Today it is the exact opposite: everybody is saved, but there is no sin to be saved from. Thus what originally came into the world as “good news” strikes the modern mind as bad news, as guilt-ridden, moralistic and “judgmental”. (page 26, Kreeft’s commentary on pensee 6)

Page 26 (from Kreeft’s commentary on pensee 6)

If he exalts himself, I humble him.
If he humbles himself, I exalt him.
And I go on contradicting him
Until he understands
That he is a monster that passes all understanding.

Page 37 (Pascal speaking, pensee 130)

When we want to correct someone usefully and show him he is wrong, we must see from what point of view he is approaching the matter, for it is usually right from that point of view, and we must admit this, but show him the point of view from which it is wrong. This will please him, because he will see that he was not wrong but merely failed to see every aspect of the question.

Page 39 (Pascal speaking, pensee 701)

Our religion is wise and foolish: wise, because it is the most learned and most strongly based on miracles, prophecies, etc., foolish, because it is not all this which makes people belong to it. . . . What makes them believe is the Cross. . . . And so St. Paul, who came with wisdom and signs, said that he came with neither wisdom nor signs, for he came to convert, but those who come only to convince may say they come with wisdom and signs.

Page 42 (Pascal speaking, pensee 842)