Years ago, I spent a month with my family in Burundi. I had once worked there when still single. During this visit, my daughter took French lessons from a local teacher in the small provincial center where we were staying. At one point, M. Jérôme, the teacher, asked her why Europeans give flowers as gifts. “They’re beautiful,” my daughter said. M. Jérôme shook his head with exasperation. “That makes no sense. We like cows, not flowers.” People think differently. That may be obvious, but we often forget this in our rush to assert the truth.
Our cultures and personal habits shape how we think. Flowers versus cows. Social values are at work here, but also the very shape of our survival and relationships: seasons, kings, armies, markets, factories, grandparents, universities, restaurants, hillsides, and deserts. Navigating each of these over time, and with others, orders the logic of our reasoning and judgments. What if Pascal had lived in Sumatra?
Philosophers and theologians have tried to identify ways of thinking that will get everyone on the same page of truth. Methods and manuals were offered on the basis of this conviction. Ramon Llull, the thirteenth-century theologian and missionary to North Africa, wrote the Ars Magna, detailing methods of thinking, demonstration, and contemplation that he believed applied universally to all minds and hearts, and could thus be used to convert the Muslims. Antoine Arnauld and Pierre Nicole’s massively popular Logique de Port-Royal was a seventeenth-century handbook on correct thinking that they believed could reform French society (and convert Protestants).