Tag Archives: theology

That Moment When Biden Quotes Kierkegaard on Colbert

Stephen Colbert conducted an outstanding interview with Veep Joe Biden last night — moving, heartbreaking, deep, and even theological. Some of the Twitter reactions:






In honor of Blaise Pascal’s birthday

One of the premises of this blog is a quotation from Blaise Pascal: “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.”

He has been proven right again and again.

But I’ve made that point enough — at least until the next example hits the news.

Pascal (1623-1662) was a French mathematician, scientist, and philosopher. Some might also consider him a Christian theologian, considering much of his philosophical writing dealt with religious questions.

While Pascal is considered a Christian apologist, he is also considered a forerunner of existentialist thinkers, and in his written work, he frequently sounds like “intuitive psychologists” Soren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche, to use William Barrett’s phrase.

In honor of Pascal’s 392nd birthday, I offer some of my favorite excerpts from his unfinished book, probably his notes for a book, posthumously collected and published as Penseés (or Thoughts).

Greatest Hits by Pascal

“Cleopatra’s noes: had it been shorter, the whole aspect of the world would have been altered.”

The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know. We feel it in a thousand things. I say that the heart naturally loves the Universal Being, and also itself naturally, according as it gives itself to them; and it hardens itself against one or the other at its will. You have rejected the one and kept the other. Is it by reason that you love yourself?”

“Reason’s last steps is the recognition that there are an infinite number of things which are beyond it. It is merely feeble if it does not go as far as to realize that.”

Man is but a reed, the most feeble thing in nature; but his is a thinking reed. The entire universe need not arm itself to crush him. A vapour, a drop of water suffices to kill him. But, if the universe were to crush him, man would still be more noble than that which killed him, because he knows that he dies and the advantages which the universe has over him; the universe knows nothing of this.”

“It is the heart which perceives God and not the reason. That is what faith is: God perceived by the heart, not by the reason.”

“Man finds nothing so intolerable as to be in a state of complete rest, without passions, without occupation, without diversion, without effort. Then he faces is nullity, loneliness, inadequacy, dependence, helplessness, emptiness. And at once there wells up from the depths of his soul boredom, gloom, depression, chagrin, resentment, despair.”

“Not to care for philosophy is to be a true philosopher.”

“We are not satisfied with the life we have in ourselves and in 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. And if we are calm, or generous or loyal, we are anxious to have it known so that we can attach these virtues to our other existence; we prefer to detach them from our real self so as to unite them with the other. We would cheerfully be cowards if it would acquire us a reputation for bravery. How clear a sign of the nullity of our own being that we are not satisfied with one without the other and often exchange one for the other!”

“The more intelligence one has the more people one finds original. Commonplace people see no difference between men.”

“Cromwell would have ravaged the whole of Christendom; the royal family was lost, and his own family was about to become all-powerful, except for a little grain of sand that lodged in his bladder. Even Rome was about to tremble beneath him. Once this little piece of stone became lodged there, he died, his family was disgraced, peace was established all round, and the king was restored.” (Desmond Clarke includes this quotation in a discussion of Pascal’s proto-existentialist mentality. Clarke also says, “Many of Pascal’s intuitions about the contingency of human existence were a commonplace in the period, especially among Calvinist theologians.”)

Random Pascal Publishing Notes

  • Nobel-prize winning poet T.S. Eliot wrote an introduction to a 1931 edition of Penseés.
  • The 1952 set of Britannica Great Books includes a volume devoted to Pascal, including The Provincial Letters, Penseés, and Scientific Treatises.
  • In his classic 1958 study of existentialism, Irrational Man, William Barrett included Pascal as one of the forerunners of existentialism.
  • In 1966, Leicester University Press in England published The Rhetoric of Pascal: A Study of His Art of Persuasion in the Provinciales and the Penseés by Patricia Topliss.


Previous Posts about Pascal

Christian apologist Blaise Pascal had some good tips on writing

Paradoxes for Better Living, 5

The limits of knowledge

Fear of the Lord — and astonishment at his creation (Jurgen Moltmann)

As a man thinketh, so goes his health

Happy birthday, Blaise! And I have no idea how to pronounce your first name!

On ‘Some Practical Thoughts on Suicide’ from The Blog of Author Tim Ferriss

Tim Ferriss is one of the most interesting guys out there. In this long and worthwhile post, he talks about a time of depression and suicidal ideation.

I’m linking to and excerpting the post not merely as a public service announcement, although that aspect is certainly critical.

Ferriss’s post fits with the overall purpose of my blog. Unfortunately, the research is consistent and clear: for many who have suffered religious authoritarianism, spiritual abuse, or cult dynamics, suicide can be a real, substantial temptation.

Ferriss doesn’t seem to be a religious man in any traditional sense of the word, but he makes an interesting observation:

I personally believe that consciousness persists after physical death, and it dawned on me that I literally had zero evidence that my death would improve things. It’s a terrible bet. At least here, in this life, we have known variables we can tweak and change. The unknown void could be Dante’s Inferno or far worse. When we just “want the pain to stop,” it’s easy to forget this. You simply don’t know what’s behind door #3.  — via Some Practical Thoughts on Suicide | The Blog of Author Tim Ferriss.

Read the entire post: Some Practical Thoughts on Suicide | The Blog of Author Tim Ferriss.

Some Christian beliefs make matters worse, insisting that God ordains each sin (and suicide is considered a sin).

However logically and systematically consistent some theological thinkers might be, the idea of God ordaining horrible things is abhorrent.

At very least we could acknowledge that an impassible God becoming incarnate to die in place of his creatures is anything but logical. Perhaps loving, but not logical.

Here one of G.K. Chesterton’s quotes pops into mind: “The mad man is not the man who has lost his reason. The mad man is the man who has lost everything except his reason.”

Maybe some theological thinkers have been orthodox and mad.

Logical and insane.

Logic and analysis are good. Problems come along when a mind becomes so focused on and so obsessed with the parts that it can no longer see the connections and the wholes. No one can live while seeing only fragments and pieces.

Which reminds me of a thought that, I think, came from C.S. Lewis: for the modernistic scientist, a real bird is a bird opened on the dissection table, pinned down and pulled apart. In an earlier time, a real bird was a bird on the wing, with its song.

Everyone knows the bird has guts. But even in a natural order sparked by a blind watchmaker, who would think the bird exists merely in relation to the functioning of its internal organs? The bird exists in relation to the rest of the natural order — bugs, fish, soil, water, and trees, as well as humans and human culture. We appreciate these relationships — they’ve been there as long as we can remember, as far back as we can see in art and literature.

Endless dissection is useful, even helpful, but discoveries made through analysis are never for themselves, but for better understandings of wholes.

Over-analysis of a single situation leads into a singular focus, a mental microscope on a single cell, with no context for its wider circumstances, its situations and connections. The suicidal person might feel like this one bad circumstance is all there is. But there is so much more.

So for some scientists and some theologians, reasoning has been a force for good, for making connections and seeing wholes, for continuing to live in spite of extraordinary difficulties.

They use reasoning to see the connections and the wholes — in other words, the meaningfulness of everything that exists.

Also see:

Walker Percy’s passage on “the ex-suicide” from his book Lost in the Cosmos.

‘Church Sex Scandals Are Rooted in Theology’ – The Daily Beast

More about Bob Jones University and sexual abuse:

The fact pattern is by now familiar—though a little different in the BJU case, which covers counseling for all reported sexual abuse, not just abuse perpetrated by members of the Bob Jones community. Of the 166 respondents to the BJU survey who reported sexual abuse, about half of the abuse took place before they came to the university; this particular report is more about counseling victims than prosecuting perpetrators. This is not another cover-up.

The university’s responses, though, were depressingly familiar. Only 7.6 percent of victims were encouraged by BJU staff to report their abuse to the police. Forty-seven percent were actively told not to do so and 55 percent said the university’s attitude toward abuse reports was “blaming and disparaging.” Women were invited to confess what they had done to entice the abuser—the wearing of revealing clothing, for example. And if their bodies “responded favorably,” then they, too, had sinned.

Indeed, even if their bodies hadn’t “responded favorably” to being raped or abused, abuse survivors were still regarded as “damaged goods,” according to the report, because virginity is prized above all, and any illicit sex—consensual or not—is sinful. That may be hard for non-religious people to wrap their heads around, but remember, if sex is bad and virginity is good, that’s true no matter the circumstances, no matter the presence or absence of consent.

Interestingly, the Bob Jones University report is, itself, a kind of religious document. Produced by an organization called GRACE, whose mission is “to empower the Christian community through education and training to recognize and respond to the sin of sexual abuse,” it is full of biblical citations and theological argument. For example, the report argues against victim-blaming by citing Matthew 5:28 (“Everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart”) and stating that “If a dress code encourages men to see women for their bodies—whether they dress modestly or not—then women become objects, and often, mere objects of lust.”

via Church Sex Scandals Are Rooted in Theology – The Daily Beast

Here’s what three Reformed / Calvinist scholars say about the variety of views within Christianity

If anything gives me a bit of hope for evangelicals and Calvinists and self-identified Reformed folks, it’s this kind of honest, clear-headed assessment from three leading scholars:

…Most of our theories of the world — philosophical, commonsensical, or even scientific — are underdetermined by the evidence that supports them. They are consistent with the facts, but the facts are not so compelling that their competitors can be shown to be logically inconsistent with the facts. When two such theories are in competition, no appeal to evidence, therefore, could determine the winner.

Biblical interpretations and theological statements are underdetermined by the biblical data. Scripture is a mix of history, myth, poetry, moral instruction, praise, hyperbole, prophecy, and so forth. Sorting through this array of genres requires some sort of hermeneutical [interpretive] method. The inerrancy or infallibility of Scripture are of themselves incapable of delivering God’s truth. Without a hermeneutical method, the inerrant or infallible biblical data cannot communicate truth claims…..

Underdetermination may account for the apparent intractability of theological disputes…. Theologians on both sides of these disputes believe their doctrines to be the only adequate explanation of the biblical data. However, if their competitors also adequately account for all of the biblical data, no appeal to the evidence could resolve the dispute.

Those are excerpts from the entry entitled “Underdetermination” in 101 Key Terms in Philosophy and Their Importance for Theology (Westminster John Knox, 2004) by Kelly James Clark and James K.A. Smith of Calvin College (at least at the time of the book’s release) and Richard Lints of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (ditto).

Reading this assessment from top-notch scholars helped me exhale. Of course, I imagine Clark, Smith, and Lints have strongly held points of view, and I don’t think they’re saying all systematic interpretations are equal. Then again, they seem to be saying the available data does not lend itself strictly to one point of view.

I’m especially appreciative of the authors’ definition of “Underdetermination” and, as I’ve noted previously, “Aesthetics.”

Robert Heinlein with the counterpoints

Here’s an interesting set of quotations from famed sci-fi writer Robert A. Heinlein, as found on Lifehack:
Robert A. Heinlein Quotations on Lifehack
Heinlein quotations on Lifehack
Robert A. Heinlein quotations from Lifehack
Quotations from Robert Heinlein on Lifehack

‘Dear Lord, I passed my theology test, and I hate everyone…’

“…so may I please take Mark Driscoll‘s place and become an evangelical best-selling author? I’ll promise to give some of the money to my ministry. Please? Amen.”