Pascal's Pensées: Week 6, The Contradiction


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.


I'll confess, that last line makes me uncomfortable. I don't think people, as individuals, are monsters that pass all understanding. I might, though, be willing to ponder the sentiment collectively, historically, and abstractly, that humanity is a "monster" who, without some moral guidance, tends toward the dark and destructive. And this darkness does show up deep within each of us. As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn famously said, "The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either -- but right through every human heart -- and through all human hearts."

As a psychologist my mind here goes to things like Stanford Prison Experiment and the Milgram Obedience Studies. We're not monsters, but we can become a monster. The darkness always sits close to hand. So the work here is to spotlight our moral vulnerabilities. The cracks in our virtue. 

And with that reframe in mind, I have often used this very strategy of contradiction when I've addressed audiences. I've said this over and over to audiences, "We like to see ourselves as lovers. But we're all haters."

And then, if I'm in front of a progressive audience, I'll say, "For example, do you love Donald Trump supporters? Do you love police officers? Do you love gun owners? COVID deniers refusing to wear masks? Do you love QAnon supporters?"

And if I'm talking to a conservative audience, I'll say, "Do you love pro-life feminists? Do you love Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez? Do you love Black Lives Matter activists? Do you love LGBTQ folks?"

Like I said, we're all haters. Everybody hates somebody. And you haven't really confronted Christianity until you've reached this point of contradiction, that hard, grim look in the mirror at your own sin. Few have the stomach or courage for it. 

Over the years, many kind followers and readers have asked me, "Why aren't you more popular as a speaker and author?" It seems, in the estimate of these generous people, that what I have to say and what I have said over the years deserves a wider following and hearing. Perhaps. I sort of think of myself as the Grateful Dead in the Christian landscape, never mainstream but thankful to have a small, devoted following. I think of myself an indie artist playing small clubs to faithful fans, staying true to my muse even if that means I'll never breakout into the mainstream and pack out stadiums. 

A part of this is that I've never been interested in growing a following or building a brand. You have to put in some effort to find and keep up with me. I don't make it easy. I'd prefer to be the musician in the subway. The graffiti artist in the ally. The street preacher on the corner. You don't need a ticket. I'll be right here. You know where to find me. 

But really, I think the biggest part of any lack of mainstream appeal within the Christian Industrial Complex is what I've described here in this post, Pascal's method of contradiction. If you say the things like what I have said to both progressive and evangelical audiences you don't attract huge, huge followings. 

Take a look at Hunting Magic Eels. The book is perfectly suited to a "spiritual, not religious" age. The book could have been wholly warm and fuzzy, all good vibes and uplift. But at the end of the book I turn to say some contradictory things. As longtime readers of this blog will know, at some point I will turn on you. I will intentionally seek you out, progressive or evangelical, and say something hard to you. And, predictably, the reviewers who have not liked Hunting Magic Eels have not enjoyed the last part of the book. But I refuse to exit the stage without stepping on your toes. At least a little bit. And that "Ouch!", which I insist on including, will, I think, always put an upper limit on any mass, mainstream appeal I might have. 

But no regrets. I like small clubs, alleyways, subways and street corners. I think that if I ever did become wildly popular and mainstream my work would have "sold out" and devolved into something therapeutic and commercial. I would have lost the contradiction. I'd rather remain a street preacher. 

You know where to find me.

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