A Merry Pascalian Christmas!

December 19, 2016

by Carl Trueman

Two weeks ago I concluded my annual course on the Reformation in traditional fashion, with a lecture on Blaise Pascal. I always do this, for two reasons. First, I like the contrarianism of ending a course on the Protestant dismantling of medieval Christendom with a class on one of the greatest Roman Catholic thinkers of any age. Second, I want students to see that debates in Protestantism about divine grace had close parallels within the Roman Church, as all Christians wrestled with the legacy and meaning of Augustine. But, as an aficionado of gloomy prophets, I find Pascal as critical theorist of culture most important and compelling.

Above all Christian thinkers, Pascal anticipated and critiqued the spirit of our present age. With his notions of distraction and diversion, he saw both the luxury and the bureaucratic complexity of the French court of his day as driven by a deep psychological need: the desire to avoid facing the reality of mortality. Thus, the French king, who could surely have spent all day merely contemplating his own glory, actually spends every day in busy-ness or occupied with trivial entertainment, for anything is preferable to solitude. Solitude is the context in which our minds move forward to think about our impending deaths.

I suspect Pascal would see our age as still preoccupied with distracting ourselves from death. Entertainment dominates our lives and our national economy. Sexual politics is likewise a form of distraction. Transgender Man is simply the latest and greatest manifestation of death-defying Psychological Man. If we can pretend that our bodies are of only very subordinate or incidental significance to who we are, then we can pretend that we may ultimately beat their authority. Pascal would no doubt see the psychological turn in our culture as an obvious one: It combines both the therapeutic needs that are met by entertainment and the repudiation of the significance of our bodies. . . .

. . . continue reading at First Things.

Carl Trueman

Dr. Trueman (PhD, Aberdeen) is professor of church history at WTS.

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