Pascal's Pensées: Week 2, Transcendence Matters

Recall that Pascal was going to turn his collection of "thoughts" into a book arguing for and defending the Christian faith. But due to his death Pascal couldn't write the book. So right from the start, editors of the Pensées have tried to discern the outline of the book Pascal would have written, trying to arrange the notes and scattered thoughts in an order that might create an argumentative flow.

Obviously, such arrangements are speculative. But they do help arrange Pascal's ideas into thematic groupings which make the Pensées a bit easier to digest. Pascal did linger on certain points and return to points previously made. And while the location of these points within a larger argument Pascal might have made is hard to know, thematic groups of the "thoughts" help highlight "hot spots" in Pascal's thinking. 

For this series, I'm going to follow the flow speculatively set out by Peter Kreeft in his Christianity for Modern Pagans: Pascal's Pensées Edited, Outlined, and Explained. Incidentally, not everyone finds the Pensées a clear, edifying, and coherent read. Many of the Pensées are confusing, tangential, or obscure. So if you're new to the Pensées, or failed to get through the Pensées, let me suggest Kreeft's book. 

Let me say something about Kreeft's title, "Christianity for Modern Pagans." That's an aggressive title. And Kreeft is a pretty aggressive Christian apologist. But, then again, so is Pascal and so is the Pensées. 

So before we get into things, a note about "paganism."

It's a timely note as I devote a chapter to pagan versus Christian enchantments in Hunting Magic Eels, in Part 4 where I talk about the discernment of enchantments. For this, I borrow from Steven Smith's book Pagans and Christians in the City: Culture Wars from the Tiber to the Potomac

Smith makes the argument that Christian and pagan spiritualities differ in how they place the location of the scared. Smith writes:

[P]agan religion differs from Judaism and Christianity in its placement of the sacred. Pagan religion locates the sacred within this world. In that way, paganism can consecrate the world from within: it is religiosity relative to an immanent sacred. Judaism and Christianity, by contrast, reflect a transcendent religiosity; they place the sacred, ultimately, outside the world--"beyond space and time." 
Smith points out that immanent spiritualities--locating the sacred within the world--have always been around, and even have mixed in various ways with the transcendent spirituality of Christianity. To be sure, for Christians God is both immanent and transcendent, the two mix together. But the key shift of Christianity in the West has been the recognition and role of transcendence. 

Now, to Kreeft's title and the point I make in Hunting Magic Eels, Smith observes that, after 2,000 years of cultural dominance in the West, the transcendent spirituality of Christianity is now losing ground to the immanent spirituality of paganism. Increasingly, people aren't looking toward a transcendent sacred that stands over, interrupts and judges human affairs. Rather, we seek and sacralize goods we find within creation. Things are good--food, sex, values, human being--in themselves. Creation, the parts we enjoy at least, is intrinsically good, independent of any other transcendent good that confers goodness. This trend is at the heart of the "spiritual but not religious" movement.

All that to say, when we say "God matters" we're also saying transcendence matters. Why? Here's what I write in Hunting Magic Eels:
Transcendent enchantment challenges the central conceit of the modern world, that no one, not even God, can stand in judgment of us. So it’s not surprising that immanent enchantment is now all the rage on the spiritual marketplace. One of the most noteworthy features of modern-day “spirituality” is how eclectic it is, how you choose it. In the modern spiritual marketplace, you pick your enchantment, like shopping for deals at Walmart...Mix and match until you achieve the enchantment perfectly suited for your lifestyle, budget, political views, values, and friend group. All fit to order.

These [enchantments] aren’t problematic in themselves. But immanent enchantments are collected and curated, the product of our whims and fancies. Our enchantments have become lifestyle choices. We pick the enchantment that suits us or is most in fashion. Or the one we can afford. And celebrities are such a help here. Enchantment becomes a brand and fad, the mystical tinsel we sprinkle over our curated images on social media.

If we’re thoughtful, we can sense the shallowness of it all. Can an enchantment we pick up and lay down at a whim really give our lives the sacred meaning and weight we’ve been longing for? Can an enchantment we choose for ourselves become anything but narcissistic, a reflection of our own highly selective and cropped self-image? Immanent enchantments are on the rise because they are perfectly suited to our consumeristic age. And that is the fatal, fundamental flaw.

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