Sunday, November 30, 2008


Over Thanksgiving, I had the distinct pleasure--between the sweet potatoes and pumpkin pie--of good conversation with old friends. In particular, the Scientist Dad and I were able to discuss Blaise Pascal and the meaning of philosophy over baby food and coffee with a Philosopher Pater Familias.

One problem of teaching philosophy, posited he, is that you can only reward students with good grades when they demonstrate sufficient knowledge of the material. For example, the students who tend to get the best grades are the girls who sit in the back of the class and say nothing, but WOW do they know how to study. They may or may not have taken, for example, Augustine's Confessions to heart. Students, however, who engage the material, ask the philosophical questions, and apply their answers to their lives (i.e., put them into action) may or may not get good grades in philosophy class. But they are the students doing precisely what the teacher wants (or, at any rate, what a good teacher wants); the students philosophizing cannot be rewarded for actually doing philosophy.

This is the nature of wisdom: it eludes the obvious rewards.

But how to prod students to bring wisdom to their lives? Pascal recognizes the problem (of course): a man can study and even master the proofs for the existence of God, but five minutes after leaving his desk he will doubt God's existence. Reason's mastery of a subject (God) does not guarantee it will enter into his heart (which, for Pascal, is the center of the whole person).

The trick, he says, is to begin to act, to behave as if God existed. Or as if a moral life would make you happy. Or as if material things were unimportant. It is only in acting--in putting on a mask, so to speak--that the heart engages in truth. Reason cannot be certain of truth, especially in the post-modern world, until the heart is certain of truth. And for the heart to be certain, the man must bend his will and his life to certainty.

So, for the unbeliever who seeks God, Pascal suggests going into a church (a church housing the Eucharist) and kneeling. Go to a liturgy and say the prayers. The whole person--in the body's prayerful motions, the heart's desire, the mind's rest--becomes convicted of God's existence and his own wretchedness. In surrendering to the attractive face of the Redeemer, the heart begins to move to peace and certainty and love, and soon joy follows.

A good reminder for Advent. Our wretchedness. God's revelation in Christ. Joy.

1 comment:

Maica Kozak said...

Thank you for this post Erika. I am (just a little) sad that November and poets month is over. I enjoyed it very much. Until next November!