Two weeks ago I concluded my annual course on the Reformation in traditional fashion, with a lecture on Blaise Pascal. I always do this, for two reasons. First, I like the contrarianism of ending a course on the Protestant dismantling of medieval Christendom with a class on one of the greatest Roman Catholic thinkers of any age. Second, I want students to see that debates in Protestantism about divine grace had close parallels within the Roman Church, as all Christians wrestled with the legacy and meaning of Augustine. But, as an aficionado of gloomy prophets, I find Pascal as critical theorist of culture most important and compelling.
Above all Christian thinkers, Pascal anticipated and critiqued the spirit of our present age. With his notions of distraction and diversion, he saw both the luxury and the bureaucratic complexity of the French court of his day as driven by a deep psychological need: the desire to avoid facing the reality of mortality. Thus, the French king, who could surely have spent all day merely contemplating his own glory, actually spends every day in busy-ness or occupied with trivial entertainment, for anything is preferable to solitude. Solitude is the context in which our minds move forward to think about our impending deaths.
I suspect Pascal would see our age as still preoccupied with distracting ourselves from death. Entertainment dominates our lives and our national economy. Sexual politics is likewise a form of distraction. Transgender Man is simply the latest and greatest manifestation of death-defying Psychological Man. If we can pretend that our bodies are of only very subordinate or incidental significance to who we are, then we can pretend that we may ultimately beat their authority. Pascal would no doubt see the psychological turn in our culture as an obvious one: It combines both the therapeutic needs that are met by entertainment and the repudiation of the significance of our bodies.
Yet death is unavoidable and so, when it makes its inevitable appearance, it must be rationalized. This is especially striking with regard to the Immortals of our own day, the celebrities, those High Priests of distraction who serve the most important function of all. When a famous person dies, somebody must be to blame. Remember the hoo-hah surrounding why Joan Rivers died? I hate to cause distress to anyone out there but here’s the thing: Seriously ill eighty-one-year-old women in the hospital have been known to die without anybody else actually being directly responsible. Likewise with pop stars addicted to drugs.
Yes, we live an age in which we can self-identify as we wish and demand under threat of litigation that others recognize our identity confections, however bizarre and obviously erroneous, as real. But reflect on this: While we can self-identify as immortal all we want, the truth is that, to channel the spirit of Groucho, if you live long enough, you will die. Mortality is the one identity that binds us all together.
That’s what makes the Incarnation so significant. To use the language of our day, when God self-identified as a human being, he did not simply think himself into the role. The Incarnation is not a divine psychological state. God actually had to take human flesh and become incarnate because human nature is a given, a material reality. It cannot be made, unmade, and remade at will.
The metaphysical assumptions of the present age, so perfectly articulated in the phrases “You can be whatever you want to be” and, more tragically, “I am a woman trapped in a man’s body,” are anti-Incarnational at the deepest level. And they are flatly contradicted by our own mortality. Our bodies will have the final word on who we are. No view of reality that denies or marginalizes death can help us to live. That is why Christianity is so important. As Christianity claims, death is overcome not by our pretending it is not there but by God’s going through it. The last temptation of Christ—“If you are the king of the Jews, come down from the cross!”—had to be resisted in favor of the second thief’s prayer, “Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom!” Christ really had to die that human beings might truly live.
Perhaps the irony of Christmas is that, in its current form, it has become one of the focal points of the culture of distraction, which Pascal so ably critiqued. It is all about consumption, which is just another form of distraction and diversion. It gives us a baby Jesus, helpless and conveniently trapped in a manger, a Christ who is just one more manageable commodity. Ironically, the real message of Christmas is the exact opposite: not to distract us from death but to point us toward death, and then its destruction in Christ. Were death not a reality, Christmas would not be necessary.
Carl R. Trueman is Paul Woolley Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary. This was blogged at FIRST THINGS on Dec. 21, 2016