Articles and other thoughts

Pascal and the Pensées- Dealing with Our Mortality


“This negligence in a matter where they themselves, their eternity, their all are at stake, fills me more with irritation than pity; it astounds and appalls me; it seems quite monstrous to me. I do not say this prompted by the pious zeal of spiritual devotion. I mean on the contrary that we ought to have this feeling from principles of human interest” (Pascal, Christianity for Modern Pagans: Pascal’s Pensées, 191).

A Second Reflection from Part III: Two Popular Pseudo-Solutions

We spend hours thinking about and discussing trivial things in life. We might, for example, spend days or weeks preparing our lawn for a new landscape design that we hope to bring to our property. Likewise, we spend massive amounts of time think about what car we might purchase, what we want our wardrobe to be like, or following our favorite sports team. When it comes to these things we typically have plenty of time and devote substantial amounts of mental energy.

Surprisingly, however, we give very little attention to the weightier things of life. We might follow the overall progress of our stock portfolio, but spend very little time seeking to understand the particular funds we invest in or the mechanics of the market. And yet, our future depends on such things.

Yet, even more surprising is the amount of attention we give to the weightiest thing of all—eternity. After 20 years of ministry, I’ve had hundreds, maybe thousands, of conversations with people about eternity. And though I’ve seen it so many times, I’m repeatedly shocked by how little thought people give to their own mortality and the fact of eternity. How, I wonder? How can they go through life and be so indifferent to the most important thing in their whole existence? How is it that they can be so blinded by the temporal things of life and lose sight of something so much bigger, so much more important? Like Pascal, I ask this not because I’m more spiritual than they are. I ask this because (1) I care about my life both now and for eternity, and (2) death is certain. In the interest of self-preservation, how can we not pursue the knowledge of God?

Pascal’s answer to this was simple. The indifference found in the lives of so many is really nothing more than just a coping mechanism for dealing with our own mortality. We are like the silly child who covers his eyes when monsters are around, thinking that if he can’t see the monster, then the monster can’t see him. Perhaps if we don’t think about it, then the stark realities won’t come.

We all know this is foolish, and yet this is what we do. A better way, as Pascal reminds us, is to replace our indifference with a passionate pursuit of Christ. We cannot avoid death, but we can find life through death in our Lord’s death, burial and resurrection. To do otherwise is reckless and foolish.

I encourage you to continue reading through Pascal as he helps us see more clearly. Let’s chose the better way. Let’s cast off indifference and in our own interest, seek Christ!

Teaching your kids about the value of work


Nobody likes to work. That’s probably not true, but it does seem that way sometimes, given the way people complain about their jobs and their overall circumstances. As a result, most adults have a very low view of work and they end up passing it on to their kids. Unless we want kids who are lazy and ungrateful, we should do everything we can to help them see the value and goodness of work.

  1. Start young. There’s a lot that small kids cannot do. But, there is more they can do than we might think, and we shouldn’t miss these opportunities to shape them. Even small children can feed a pet, or fold a washcloth on the floor while mommy and daddy fold laundry. They can also do things like carry toilet paper to the bathrooms, put their dirty dishes in the sink, or help clean up toys. If you do all these things without soliciting your child’s help, you’re missing an important opportunity to shape them…and to encourage their participation in working with you.
  1. Work with them. Simply saying to your child “go over there and do thus and such” will probably not do much to help your child learn the value of work. By contrast, jumping in with your child to work will be much more effective. Your children love to be with you, doing what you do. Plus, by coming alongside your child to work with them gives you the opportunity to show them what hard work looks like.
  1. Talk with them about their future. Most kids have a dream about what they want to do when they grow up. Connect those dreams to their present world and talk with them about things they can do now to get there.
  1. Brag about their effort. When your child works, make a big deal of it. Tell them—often—how proud you are them for what they did. When friends come over, mention how hard your children worked. When children know you are proud of them for what they have done, they are much more likely to continue working and to have a positive outlook on work.
  1. Show them what God thinks about it. Our tendency to view work negatively is at odds with God’s view of work. We should remember that God placed Adam in the garden—prior to the fall—to work the ground. Work is a good thing. In work, we reflect God’s dominion over creation and we reflect His creativity in our own. These are important lessons for us to remember, but also for us to teach to our children.
  1. Incentivize it. Finally, reward your children for their work. Doing so allows them the chance to see the fruit of their labor. Moreover, doing this helps to guard against an entitlement mentality that breeds laziness and ingratitude.

None of us want our kids to be lazy or ungrateful. We want them to work hard and know how to apply themselves with great diligence. But this doesn’t happen by accident. It takes intentionality and effort from us while we still have the opportunity to influence them. Our children are worth it. Once again, I’m praying with you and for you as you parent this week!

“Let’s Read a Book”: Pascal on Busyness and Misery

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“Being unable to cure death, wretchedness and ignorance, men have decided, in order to be happy, not to think about such things” (Pascal, Christianity for Modern Pagans: Pascal’s Pensées, 170).

A Reflection from Part III: Two Popular Pseudo-Solutions

We are a busy group of people. And we are often a miserable group of people. But why? Why are we so busy? Why do we rush from moment to moment, task to task, taking little time to stop, rest, reflect, and be still? We can point to a thousand different reasons for this, but most of these reasons, if not all, are superficial. Pascal, however, identifies a unique and I would argue substantive reason fueling our busyness and misery.

Last week I introduced you to Pascal and the Pensées. I noted that his approach to apologetics is unique in comparison to the apologetic works of philosophers both in his own day and in ours. Whereas much of the apologetics we do speaks to believers, Pascal’s approach is designed to engage non-believers. That is, he writes to captivate our attention and forces us to consider the genuinely important things. And once we are captivated by such things, we begin to take seriously the things which we once dismissed so easily.

In the years I’ve spent teaching through Pascal’s Pensées, I’ve found that my students are consistently struck by what he has to say about busyness and diversion. We regularly talk about our busyness and the tyranny of the urgent. Our work schedules, school assignments, life demands, and much more, push us to go as fast as we can without stopping or slowing down. It’s easy to think that our obligations are what drive us. But is that true? Consider what happens when we get in a car and begin a long drive. Or, consider what we do when we finally put our work down in the evening. In the car, we immediately turn on the radio. In the evening we immediately turn on the TV. In those moments where silence might find a brief season of our time, we fill the void with whatever sound we can find. Silence has no place in us. We seem to avoid silence at all costs. Why? Pascal says, “I have often said that the sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room” (p. 172). That is, we avoid silence because in silence we come face to face with our unhappy state and run from it as quickly as possible. He goes on to say that we have “a secret instinct driving [us] to seek external diversion and occupation, and this is the result of [our] constant sense of wretchedness” (p. 174). In other words, we seek diversions because we hate the silence. We hate the silence because it reminds us of our fallenness, finitude, depravity, wretchedness, and eventual death. No wonder we work so diligently to occupy our minds. No wonder we are so busy.

But what is the solution to our plight? Do diversions really satisfy? Of course not. Truth be told, the constant grind of busyness actually builds a greater sense of internal struggle and breeds further misery. The solution, as Pascal would remind us, begins in the silence of our hearts where we come face to face with all that shakes us and causes misery. Then and there, we are prone to look to Christ who is Himself the resolution and satisfaction we were made to seek.

Pascal cuts to the quick and forces us to stop and hear in a new way. Once again, I invite you to read with me.

Doubting…Why It Happens to Us All from Time to Time

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I’ll admit it. I have had my moments when I wondered if it’s actually true. In fact, I’ve had more than just moments. Those who know me best know that it’s been the seasons of wondering and questioning that ultimately led me to studying apologetics and eventually philosophy. Before I knew it, I had become an academic.

Here’s one thing I’ve found. Believers tend to think something is terribly wrong if they have doubts about their faith. “Perhaps”, they think to themselves, “doubt indicates that there is something wrong with Christianity, the Bible, or even Jesus.” And since they don’t want to insinuate that anything is wrong with Christianity, the Bible, or Jesus, they suppress and conceal their doubts. And in the off chance that they actually talk about their struggles with fellow believers, they might be scolded for their uncertainty as if they have failed morally.

Here’s another thing I’ve found. Doubting is NOT—no matter what some might think—an indicator that there is something wrong with Christianity, the Bible, or Jesus. Doubting is an indicator that WE are limited as knowers. Doubting, uncertainty, and questions are not a result of some problem with Christianity. These are the results of our humanity. That is, they are part of the human condition and are shared by people of every worldview perspective. It’s just part of what it’s like to be a human and something that we all—no matter what worldview we hold to be true—have to deal with.

Having said that, let me say three things: Relax, Reflect, and Research.

(1) Relax. I’m not suggesting that you shouldn’t take your uncertainty seriously. I’m simply suggesting that your uncertainty doesn’t indicate a problem with Christianity itself. God is not worried by our questions, our wonderings, or our doubts. Perhaps we just need to take deep breaths and keep calm!

(2) Reflect. That is, let’s reflect on the causes of doubt. Over the next three weeks, I’ll do precisely this. For the next three Tuesdays, I’ll talk about how things like finitude, sin, and contextual factors (all three are factors that every human being has to deal with) hinder our confidence. So tune in and explore these factors with me. Understanding these factors helps us realize that the problem is with us as human beings, and not with Christianity.

(3) Research. I’m not suggesting that you have to become an academic like I did. But I am suggesting that a little reading, investigation, and research helps resolve doubt. If you struggle with doubt, then this is an important part of your spiritual growth.

Bottom line: Doubting is actually fairly normal and has several causes. Over the next few weeks I’ll try to explain those causes and offer some guidance for dealing with them. Stay tuned. In the meantime, don’t forget to take a deep breath and relax!

The Little Things that are Huge to Our Kids


What matters most to our kids? If you ask them now, they would probably say things like toys, video games, sports, vacations, or other such luxuries. But we know that none of that matters most. And, in the right moments of life, even our kids recognize that these things aren’t what matter. Truth be told, most of the things that matter most are fairly simple.

  1. The show of affection. Our kids need our affection. As they grow older they may not like to be public about it, but even in middle school and high school, our kids crave our love and support. The less we give it to them, the more likely they will be to seek it elsewhere.
  1. Words of encouragement. We sometimes forget what it’s like to be a child. This is a time when they are learning about the world and how to live in it. They make mistakes and experience embarrassing moments. In many cases, they get picked on or ridiculed by other kids their age. Parents must be there to lift them up and let them know we are proud of them. They need someone to give them confidence and encouragement.
  1. A chance to learn. I’ve noticed over the last year or so that my kids love it when I take the time to teach them something new. Whether it’s something like how to play a game, how to cook, how to mow grass, how to fix a broken toy, how to do a math problem, how to throw a ball, or even how to brush their own teeth, I’ve noticed that any time I say “hey, let me show you something”, my kids are eager to jump in with me to learn. Frankly, I’m 39 years old and I’m still eager for this with my own dad!
  1. A listening ear. Children always need someone to help them think through life and the pressure they face. As noted already, working through the issues of childhood and the uncertainty that comes with that can be tough. Too often we bombard our kids with instruction or our opinion without listening to what they are thinking or what they’re going through. They need us to hear them and value their concerns.
  1. A stable home. I grew up in a broken home and it had a huge impact on me. When your home is broken, the foundations of your world are broken. I have vivid memories of the struggle I had in school in the weeks, months, and even years that followed my parents’ divorce. If you love your kids, you must constantly strive for a marriage and home that are stable.

We show our kids our love in a lot of ways. But these little things can’t be forgotten. Let’s press on together for their sake! Dads and moms, I’m praying for you and with you today!

“Let’s Read a Book”: Pascal and the Pensées


For about 10 years now, I’ve taught Philosophy and the History of Ideas at the College at Southeastern, and I’ve loved every minute of it. Aside from spending time with my students, one of the great pleasures of this job has been engaging a wide variety of literature that has shaped our world. Some of these works resonate deeply with me, and others make me angry. But all of the works we read are valuable in some sense.

Most people I talk to about these readings find it fascinating that we get to read such material. Many of them, however, are scared to death of trying to jump in and read these books by themselves. Perhaps a little help and encouragement will do the trick. Perhaps a few pointers and a little guidance will help more people engage the classical works and learn from them. So here’s what we will be doing on Wednesdays on the blog. We will take anywhere from 3-6 weeks to explore an important book together. I’ll recommend a book and for several weeks every Wednesday, I’ll offer a few observations about the book that should help you pick it up and begin working through it.

Today we begin with Blaise Pascal’s Pensées, or more specifically, Peter Kreeft’s version of the Pensées titled Christianity for Modern Pagans: Pascal’s Pensées (you can purchase it here). For now, I’d suggest trying to read the first 50 pages and we can go from there next week.

Admittedly, Kreeft’s version of the Pensées has a massive amount of Kreeft’s thought in it, but his commentary and organization are extremely helpful. Pascal, a 17th century Frenchman, was a mathematician, scientist, and Christian philosopher who was particularly interested in apologetics and helping people think about their need for God. For now I’ll skip over his historical background (though his life is fascinating and worth your time to explore) and get straight to the book itself.

As Kreeft notes throughout the introduction, the title—Christianity for Modern Pagans—was chosen because it reflects the nature of Pascal’s work. He suggests that most apologetics (both then and now) is done within the Christian community and apologists write as though they are speaking to their brothers and friends. But Pascal, Kreeft notes, wrote for the modern pagan.

Pascal did so by starting with the psychological factors that contribute to the skeptic’s skepticism. He notes that men have a natural hostility towards religion and fear of religious truth. As such, they come to religion with the hope that it is not true. And as a result, it is often difficult to even begin the conversation or to get the skeptic to consider faith. Pascal’s strategy is to change the skeptic’s psychological disposition towards faith by helping them see that they actually do have reasons for hoping that religion is true. Pascal says, “Men despise religion. They hate it and are afraid it may be true. The cure for this is first (1) to show that religion is not contrary to reason, but worthy of reverence and respect. Next (2) make it attractive, make good men wish it were true, and then (3) show that it is” (p. 28). Each step in the process is important, but step (2) is most intriguing to me. How do we “make good men wish it were true”? Pascal did it by reminding men of their mortality, the brevity of their life, and the hope that Christ provides as a remedy to those problems. In short, he forces us to reckon with the realities of death and how this points to a hope for something beyond. Unless we begin with this, Pascal fears that the skeptic will always find reason not to listen to anything else we might say.

There is much more to consider about Pascal’s work, but this is a good place to start. Jump into the first few chapters to see how he guides us to think about the way we engage the skeptic. I suspect that his psychological approach to apologetics has much for us today and so I recommend that we begin here. I hope you’ll join me. Pick it up and read. You won’t regret it, I promise!

The God of Inaccessible Light


“Truly, Lord, this is the inaccessible light in which You dwell. For truly there is nothing else which can penetrate through it so that is might discover You there.” (Anselm of Canterbury, Proslogion, ch. 15)

Over the past few weeks I’ve highlighted a few nuggets from Anselm’s Proslogion. This first 7 chapters are probably the best known from the work, but here, before ending the series on Anselm, I want to highlight a few other parts of the work that are either helpful, interesting, or edifying for us. Throughout the remaining 19 chapters, Anselm reminds us of a few important things.

  1. God is just and merciful. In chapters 8-12, Anselm reminds us that God is just and merciful, reflecting on the marvel of salvation in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. While justice and mercy may strike us as being at odds with each other, Anselm notes their connection. “Truly, if You are merciful because You are supremely good, and if You are supremely good only in so far as you are supremely just, truly then You are merciful precisely because You are supremely just.”
  1. God is above and beyond our ability to grasp. In chapters 14-16, he grapples with the difficulty of God’s seeming hiddenness from us. He asks, “Why, O Lord God, does my soul not experience You if it has found You?” Perhaps we’ve all struggled with this and asked this question before. Anselm reminds us of our finitude and God’s infinity and, thus, the limits on our ability to behold Him.
  1. God is the source of every true good. Chapter 18 deals with a technical and rather difficult issue in theology—the simplicity of God. But as he prays along the way, he reminds us: “What are You, Lord, what are You; what shall my heart understand You to be? You are, assuredly, life, You are wisdom, You are truth, You are goodness, You are blessedness, You are eternity, and You are every true good.”
  1. God is fullness of joy. Anselm closes the Proslogion with a simple prayer. “God of truth, I ask that I may receive so that my ‘joy may be complete’. Until then let my mind meditate on it, let my tongue speak of it, let my heart love it, let my mouth preach it. Let my soul hunger for it, let my flesh thirst for it, my whole being desire it, until I enter into the ‘joy of the Lord’ (Matt. 25:21) who is God, Three in One, blessed forever. Amen’ (Rom. 1:25)”

Whether you agree with his ideas or not, Anselm is a great example of faith seeking understanding. He is thoughtful about his faith without losing sight of what is most important—loving God with all his being.

For those interested in reading the Proslogion, I suggest this version. Or for a nice online version you might try this one.

The Saturday Donut


With two sets of twins, we are often asked what kinds of traditions we have and what kinds of things we do to make sure we have quality time with our kids. Part of that answer depends on the time of year. For example, in the fall we always make time for the NC State Fair, at Thanksgiving we always go to the mountains, in the summer we try to make short trips to the beach at least 2-4 times, and in the Spring was always go to Meet in the Street in downtown Wake Forest. These are good things to do, but they do not provide regular activity times for the Dewcrew.

So, as often as we are able, we venture out on Saturday mornings to one of the local donut shops for breakfast. We’re fortunate to have at least 3 good options in town (Krispy Kreme, Sugar on Top, and Main Street Grill). We typically rotate which child gets to chose the location we will go to that morning.

Here’s what’s nice about this tradition:

  1. It’s simple. It requires no planning and can be done with or without both parents present.
  1. It’s fun. The kids are always laughing and grateful to have donuts.
  1. It’s delicious. I mean, who doesn’t love donuts?
  1. It’s affordable. We normally have a coupon that saves about half the cost, but even when we don’t, a dozen donuts doesn’t cost that much.
  1. It’s regular. Unlike the Fair or beach trips, we can do this each week, or at least every other week.
  1. And best of all, it gives us time with our great kids. This is essential, but often easy to overlook. Without regular traditions like this, we can often miss the best things in life!

The Saturday donut tradition has been a favorite with our crew. Perhaps it can be for yours as well!

If God cannot sin is He really all-powerful?


“And the more He can do these things, the more power adversity and perversity have over him and the less He has against them.” (Anselm of Canterbury, Proslogion, ch. 7)

Perhaps you’ve wondered this before: How can God be omnipotent (all-powerful) if He is unable to do certain things that you and I can do like, for instance, sin? This is the topic of Anselm’s 7th chapter of the Proslogion. He asks, “Again, how are You omnipotent if You cannot do all things? But, how can You do all things if You cannot be corrupted, or tell lies?

This is a natural question to ask if one understands God’s omnipotence in relation to His holiness. If God is holy, then He cannot be corrupted or sin. But if He is omnipotent, then He can do anything at all, can’t He? Well, not so fast. Taken at face value, a word like omnipotence (literally, all power) would seem to suggest that as one who possesses it could do anything at all. But I should point out here that this is not what theologians for the past 2,000 years have meant when they used the term omnipotence to describe God’s power. They have meant to say that God can do all things that a God of His nature would be inclined to do or that is in keeping with His nature.

In the 7th chapter of the Proslogion, Anselm helps us to see why we might think of God’s omnipotence in this way. As he reminds us, if God were to have the ability to sin or be corrupted, it would not count towards His power, but it would actually signify a weakness, limitation, or an inferiority in God.

This might sound odd, but consider yourself for just a moment. Why do you sin? Do you sin because you are strong, or because you are weak? When you sin, are you exercising dominion over the world and the lusts of your flesh, or are you reduced to temptation in that moment, finding yourself weak and powerless? Your sin, and mine, are the result of weakness, not power. We sin, not because we are strong, but because we are weak.

What then for God? If He could sin, would this show Him to be strong and powerful, or weak and feeble? Now consider Anselm:

In the same way, then, when someone is said to have the ‘power’ of doing or suffering something which is not to his advantage or which he ought not to do, then by ‘power’ here we mean ‘impotence’, for the more he has this ‘power’, the more adversity and perversity have power over him and the more is he powerless against them. Therefore, Lord God, You are the more truly omnipotent since You can do nothing through impotence and nothing can have power against You.

God’s holiness and power then are not at odds with each other. Properly understood, they not only balance each other out, but actually serve one another!

For those interested in reading the Proslogion, I suggest this version. Or for a nice online version you might try this one.

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Let This Mind Be in You

This guide looks at what it means to be a good servant of Christ, as well as the qualities we must have for making disciples.