Friday, March 31, 2023

Today on the Christian History Almanac podcast, we remember Rene Descartes, an important philosopher who ushered in the Age of Enlightenment.

It is the 31st of March 2023 Welcome to the Christian History Almanac, brought to you by 1517 at, I’m Dan van Voorhis.


When I teach in person, I like to play a game called “underrated, overrated, properly rated.” You can do this with anything- intellectual, historical, or otherwise. Let’s do hamburgers. Overrated? Whataburger (we’ve been over this before) Underrated? Mooyah (currently in 24 states and so good) and properly rated? Mcdonald's- you don’t expect anything more or less than what you get.

How about figures in history? Overrated? Sometimes dudes with whole church bodies or colleges named after them. Underrated? How about Simone Weil or the early church in Africa? And properly rated? Augustine, Aquinas- those big names we probably heard about in school- the ones whose ideas shaped the world to come. And so- you can see where we are going today- the story of a man I can call, with much respect, properly rated and one who shaped the modern world. He is the eccentric Frenchman Rene Descartes, who was born on the 31st of March in 1596. He is a crucial bridge between the Reformation and the Enlightenment- and, lest I tap the sign again- the Enlightenment is no more “anti-Christian” than any particular movement. It sought to ground our actions in rational thought and better understand our world.

I taught a surprisingly popular class on the Enlightenment and began with Descartes, to the surprise of some. He was born in the 16th century! He was involved in debates between Calvinists and Arminians and with the closing of the 30 Years War! This isn’t the age of Voltaire or Thomas Jefferson! Yes, but he first popularized the idea that we might let some of the old philosophies (namely Aristotelianism) go and try to understand the world as rational (reflecting a rational creator). For Descartes, the problem was knowing something with certainty. In this, the issue of assurance links the Reformation and the Enlightenment through Descartes.

Let’s first give a little bio. Rene Descartes was born in Descartes- well, it’s called that now- then it was La Haye-en-Touraine in central France. His father was a councilor in Parlement, setting up the family with a modicum of wealth. His mother died when he was young, and a grandmother and great-uncle raised him in the Poitou region- a region that was a bastion for French Calvinists. Despite this, the Descartes family was Roman Catholic. It would, however, raise questions for Rene about the place of religious toleration.

In 1606 he attended a Jesuit college, later took a law degree at Poitiers, and amidst the internal strife in France, began his peripatetic life (that is, he moved all over the place all the time). He would spend time in Denmark, Bohemia, and the Netherlands- where he was free of (some) persecution when he began to question the place of Aristotle and the church. He would write on music, mathematics, politics, morals, and metaphysics.

It was in 1641 that he published his earth-shattering Meditations on First Philosophy, in Which Is Proved the Existence of God and the Immortality of the Soul. Let me give you the big idea: how do we know anything? Don’t our senses trick us sometimes? How do we know we aren’t dreaming? Really- have you ever had a dream that felt real? Prove to me that you aren’t dreaming. Maybe we are all the figments of someone else’s imagination- it might sound silly, but you can go deep here. Descartes says the one thing he is sure of is that he is indeed thinking about such things. Thus, “I think Therefore I am” is sometimes written in Latin as “Cogito Ergo Sum,” even though Descartes, like Luther, wrote in the vernacular for the common person (for him, that was French). Furthermore- his notion of God as a perfect being requires his very existence as we could not think of something as perfect without it existing- and yes, that will take a philosophy class to unpack. Still, it opened up the world of apologetics and reintroduced the important work of Anselm.  

Descartes eventually ended up in the court of Christina of Sweden, who insisted that the philosopher tutor her early in the morning- he caught a cold that became pneumonia, and he died on February 1st, 1650- leaving behind a body of work that would be properly rated by the academies, judged, rebuffed and still taught today. Born in 1596, the properly rated Rene Descartes was 53 years old.


The last word for today comes from the daily lectionary- from Psalm 31 as we head into Palm Sunday and Holy Week:

I am forgotten as though I were dead;     I have become like broken pottery.

For I hear many whispering,
    “Terror on every side!”
They conspire against me
    and plot to take my life.

But I trust in you, Lord;
    I say, “You are my God.”

My times are in your hands;
    deliver me from the hands of my enemies,
    from those who pursue me.

Let your face shine on your servant;
    save me in your unfailing love.


This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 31st of March 2023, brought to you by 1517 at

The show is produced by a man in Wisconsin who surely knows that a slice of cheese with your apple pie is underrated- He is Christopher Gillespie.

The show is written and read by a man who really thinks it's ok to like Whataburger- I’m just messing’ with Texas-  I’m Dan van Voorhis.

You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.

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