Four Books Have Influenced Me in Profound Ways over Many Years

1. C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (many editions)

Considered one of Lewis’s more difficult and less read works (at least in comparison to his fiction or Mere Christianity), Abolition has been indispensible to my intellectual development. I first read it in my sophomore or junior year in college as a philosophy major. It gave me very solid support for the existence of moral values beyond the contingencies of culture. Technically, it is a work of meta-ethics — or the metaphysics of ethics. He argues for “the Tao,” by which he means the objective basis for moral values that transcends culture and preference. Lewis warned that abandoning this objective standpoint would lead to a culture where people attempt to invent new values and then condition others to accept them through force and propaganda. 

It is no wonder that I liberally quoted this work in my book against postmodernism, Truth Decay (2000). While not an apologetic for the biblical God as the basis for eternal values, The Abolition of Man lays that foundation. Its argument for objective moral value should be combined with the moral argument for God found in Book One of Lewis’s Mere Christianity. I have read this book at least six times and always benefit from it. In that sense, it is much like Francis Schaffer’s work, The God Who is There, which I have read about the same number of times.

2. Francis A. Schaeffer, The God Who Is There, 30th anniversary ed. (InterVarsity Press, 1998; originally published, 1968).

Originally published in 1968. 30th anniversary edition published in 1998. I first read The God Who Is There by Francis Schaeffer in the fall of 1976, my sophomore year in college—just a few months after my conversion to Christ. It is not an overstatement to say that it revolutionized my view of Christian faith and endeavor. I had spent the first few troubled months of the Christian life not knowing how to think about the great intellectual issues I had been introduced to in my first year of college. This caused considerable distress of soul. But Schaeffer, the savvy evangelist and apologist, wasn¹t afraid of the great ideas. In fact, he argued that the Christian world view is objectively true, rational, and that it offers unique hope and meaning to a post-Christian culture awash in despair and confusion. 

Schaeffer did not answer all my questions, and I have come to question a few of his judgments (particularly his reading of a few philosophers), but The God Who is There helped spark a grand view of ministry that has never dimmed. We must love the lost, take culture seriously, and outthink the world for Christ!

3. Blaise Pascal, Pensées (various editions). 

I have been reading Pascal’s profound reflections for forty-five years, and I don’t plan on stopping. I wrote a book called On Pascal (Wadsworth, 2003). I find myself quoting him in my writing and speaking frequently. I first picked this volume out of my mother’s collection of The Great Books in the summer of 1977. The volume consists of over 900 fragments of a book Pascal never completed, which would have been an apologetic for the Christian faith. Nevertheless, many of the fragments—some more developed and refined than others—were so brilliant that Pascal’s family published them after his death in 1662. He was only 39. 

Pascal, a celebrated scientist and mathematician, understood that the gospel was the only key that could unlock the meaning of the human condition. His reflections on the greatness and misery of humanity are unparalleled in their wisdom and apologetic power. We are great because made in God’s image and likeness; but we are miserable because we are fallen. We are deposed royalty in need of the Mediator, Jesus Christ.

4. Søren Kierkegaard, Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing (various editions). 

Although I cannot agree with much of Kierkegaard’s religious philosophy (particularly his fideism), this devotional book was pivotal in my sense of divine calling. Kierkegaard (1813-55) aimed to reform the dry and dead Lutheran orthodoxy of his day by stimulating his readers to rediscover the Christianity of the New Testament and to stand naked as individuals before God himself. This book summons the reader to consider their lives before the “audit of eternity” and to order all their affairs so as to “will the good in the truth,” without excuse and without wavering and against the crowd, if need be. 

Through reading it, I discovered that God was calling me to engage the life of the mind as a lifelong pursuit. At the time (1977 or 1978), I did not know what shape this commitment would take, but the Lord’s will was made known to me through this remarkable and penetrating book.

A Royal Ruin: Pascal’s Argument from Humanity to Christianity

The Bible is God’s anthropology rather than man’s theology—Abraham Heschel

We humans often puzzle over our own humanity, scanning our heights and our depths, wondering about and worrying over the meaning of our good and our evil. No other animal reflects on its species like this. Here, and in so many other ways, we stand unique among living creatures. Why does a young student go on a homicidal rampage at Virginia Tech on April 16, 2007, murdering thirty-two fellow humans, and then kill himself? Why does evil strike so hard and so erratically?

In spite of these upsurges of human evil, we are also struck by the beauty, courage, and genius wrought by human minds, hearts, and hands. After every tragedy, heroes emerge who rescue the living, comfort the dying, and put others above themselves in spontaneous acts of altruism. Humans make machines made to torture others, and humans make music sublime in its ability to give pleasure. Singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn ponders the complexities and contradictions of humanity in “The Burden of the Angel/Beast”—the distinctively human discomfort with being human and not understanding the origin and meaning of our own humanness.

We go crying, we come laughing.
Never understanding the time we’re passing.
Kill for money, die for love.
Whatever was God thinking of?

The meaning of human existence is a question as perennial as it is perplexing. It haunts our songs and our poems, it stalks our relationships, and it troubles our philosophies and religions.

In the seventeenth century, a young scientific and philosophical genius, Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) marveled at our enigmas and inscrutability in Pensées.

What sort of freak then is man! How novel, how monstrous, how chaotic, how paradoxical, how prodigious! Judge of all things, feeble earthworm, repository of truth, sink of doubt and error, the glory and refuse of the universe!

Yet this was no mere marveling. Any worldview worth its rational salt needs to offer a sufficient explanation for both human greatness and debauchery. Pascal goes on: “Man’s greatness and wretchedness are so evident that the true religion must necessarily teach us that there is in man some great principle of greatness and some great principle of wretchedness.”

Any worldview worth its rational salt needs to offer a sufficient explanation for both human greatness and debauchery.

Pascal believed the answers were found in the Bible. We find greatness in humanity because we are made in the divine image. However, that image has been defaced (but not erased) through the fall into sin. There is something wrong with every aspect of our being, but we remain noble in our origin. There are, to invoke Cockburn again, “rumors of glory” found in humanity.

From the greatness and wretchedness of humanity, Pascal developed an argument for the truth and rationality of Christianity. While his ingenious argument has been reconstructed in more detail elsewhere, we will consider its basic structure, which provides a fruitful point of discussion with seeking and questioning people today.

The genius of the Christian perspective is that it explains both greatness and misery without exalting one above the other.

The genius of the Christian perspective is that it explains both greatness and misery without exalting one above the other. Our nobility, expressed in the achievements of thought, for example, is due to the divine image. Because of this, we transcend the rest of creation. Yet we abuse our greatest endowments, wasting our God-given skills on trivia and diversions, because we know we will die and do not know what to do about it. We are the corruption of a former original. Pascal says:

The point is that if man had never been corrupted, he would, in his innocence, confidently enjoy both truth and felicity, and, if man had never been anything but corrupt, he would have no idea either of truth or bliss. But unhappy as we are (and we should be less so if there were no element of greatness in our condition) we have an idea of happiness but we cannot attain it. We perceive an image of the truth and possess nothing but falsehood.

In other words, we are royal ruins. We possess some truth, but we cannot rest content in what we naturally know. We feel our own corruption; and in so doing, we realize the human condition is somehow abnormal, flawed, and degenerate. In the context of surveying human greatness and misery in many dimensions of life, Pascal says: “It is the wretchedness of a great lord, the wretchedness of a dispossessed king.”

In surveying human philosophies and other religions, Pascal notes that they either exalt humans at the expense of taking seriously their weaknesses or reduce humans to nothing at the expense of their significance. In his day, many were impressed by the philosophy of the Stoics, who asserted that humans were great in reason and courage and partook of the divine essence of the universe. Yet they made little allowance for human weakness, cruelty, uncertainty, and fragility. Thus, they exalted greatness at the expense of misery.

On the other hand, various skeptics, such as Michel Montaigne (1533-1592), delighted in showing the weakness of human reason and the arrogance of our pretensions. Yet the skeptics downplayed our ability to reason properly and the significance of human achievements in science, art, and elsewhere. As Pascal said, they should have been more skeptical of their skepticism.

While the specific writers that Pascal addressed are not commonly discussed today, the tendency either to overrate or underrate humanity is still with us. Many examples abound, but I will briefly inspect one worldview that today overrates humanity: the New Spirituality (or sometimes called New Age spirituality).

The New Spirituality is an amalgamation of ideas drawn from many sources. But whether it is the best-selling book, The Secret (hawked by Oprah Winfrey), the popular books by Deepak Chopra, or the movie, “What the Bleep Do We Know,” the New Spirituality claims we are divine beings who can tap into unlimited potential through a change in consciousness. (In this way, it is somewhat similar to Stoicism.) We are limited not by our sinful condition, but only by negative thought patterns. The “secret” of The Secret is “the law of attraction”—we attract good things to ourselves through positive thoughts and negative things to ourselves through negative thoughts.

This blind optimism and inflation of human abilities appeals to our pride, but it is radically out of alignment with reality. Yes, humans achieve much of what they conceive, but there are limits for finite beings qua finite beings. Thought itself does not create reality ex nihilo. Moreover, humans inflict evil on others willfully and repeatedly. We cannot explain this away on the basis of the negative thoughts of those who are victimized. Consider the millions of untouchables (or Dalits) of India. Their three thousand years of subjugation by the upper Hindu castes cannot be explained on the basis of low self-esteem in the Dalits. That would blame the victim unjustly. Rather, human beings, given their fallen propensity to exalt themselves over others artificially, have unjustly oppressed these image-bearers of God for three millennia. “Man’s inhumanity to man” is a fact of human history, in India and everywhere else under the sun. Even a royal ruin should be able to see that and search for an adequate answer.

The Christian worldview conserves both our greatness and our wretchedness in a profound revelation, something not available to unaided human reason, as Pascal points out:

Know then, proud man, what a paradox you are to yourself. Be humble, impotent reason! Be silent, feeble nature! Learn that man infinitely transcends man, hear from your master your true condition, which is unknown to you. Listen to God.

The biblical account of our creation and fall best fits the facts of human reality, argues Pascal. He does not condemn reason in toto, but rather points out the limits of what can be known apart from divine revelation, which encompasses spiritual and cosmic realities not available to finite and fallible knowers when shut up to themselves. However, Pascal counseled that we must “listen to God”—meaning, deeply attend to what God has communicated in the Bible—to discover this liberating truth.