How often have you tried sharing your faith with loved ones, friends, or colleagues only to be met with indifference, mockery, or, worse still, hostility? Although Scripture warns us to expect rejection, we are often left wondering at the mystery of incredulity. A man who reflected a great deal on that mystery is the seventeenth-century French polymath Blaise Pascal (1623–62), and his reflections are worth rereading in every generation.
Pascal was associated with the Jansenist movement,1 a small and controversial group of Roman Catholics who recovered Augustine’s emphasis on God’s sovereignty in election and salvation. Pascal was converted during a memorable night in November 1654 when he encountered the One he famously described as “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, not the God of philosophers and scholars.” Soon after his conversion, he became concerned about the growing influence of atheism in Western Europe, and he decided to devote most of his energies to writing an apology for the Christian religion. He spent much time thinking about the relationship between faith and reason (he even wrote a short treatise called “On the Geometrical Mind-Set and the Art of Persuading People”). Unfortunately, his health was so poor that he died a few years later at age thirty-nine. He left behind a large number of preparatory notes that were published after his death under the name Pensées (French “thoughts”). The term is misleading because it evokes a series of unconnected aphorisms, and, in effect, this is the way his Pensées is usually read. More recently, a few scholars2 have reordered these notes according to Pascal’s own partial classification and, while the details of his argument remain difficult to work out, the new order reveals more clearly the sophistication of his overarching contention.3 This is that argument that I would like to outline very briefly.
The following introductory pensée (in Trotter’s translation4) is crucial because it serves as a road map for Pascal’s argument:
Men despise religion; they hate it and fear it is true. To remedy this, we must begin by showing that religion is not contrary to reason; that it is venerable, to inspire respect for it; then we must make it lovable, to make good men hope it is true; finally, we must prove it is true. Venerable, because it has perfect knowledge of man; lovable because it promises the true good.
Notice a couple of things. Unbelief is predominantly a question of the will, not intelligence. Atheists do not want to believe because they are blinded and prejudiced against religion and God hasn’t granted them the ability to see the truth. Therefore, according to Pascal’s reasoning, arguing for the existence of God from the beauty or complexity of nature cannot in itself convince the unbeliever.
“Why! Do you not say yourself that the heavens and birds prove God?” No. “And does your religion not say so”? No. For although it is true in a sense for some souls to whom God gives this light, yet it is false with respect to the majority of men.
This may sound like a surprising idea coming from a scientist and mathematician but, for Pascal, this is key. In fact, Scripture itself does not proceed in this way:
It is an astounding fact that no canonical writer has ever made use of nature to prove God. . . . David, Solomon, etc., have never said, “There is no void, therefore there is a God.” They must have had more knowledge than the most learned people who came after them, and who have all made use of this argument. This is very significant.
I do not think that Pascal forgets scriptural statements like “the heavens declare the glory of God” (Ps. 19:1), but he sees that although these statements are true, they are not persuasive to unbelievers. What we need to do, Pascal says, is show that Christianity is “venerable” and worthy of respect; we need to make unbelievers wish that it were true before showing that it is. When Pascal talks about Christianity as “venerable,” he means something specific: only Christianity has a satisfactory explanation for the mystery of the human condition. This, for Pascal, is the most decisive argument in its favor. Man is caught up in a series of contradictions that make him unintelligible to himself and that no religion or philosophy can explain. Only Christianity gives the key, namely, the mystery of original sin. Pascal’s description of that mystery is powerful and memorable.
It is, however, an astonishing thing that the mystery furthest removed from our knowledge, namely, that of the transmission of sin, should be a fact without which we can have no knowledge of ourselves. For it is beyond doubt that there is nothing which more shocks our reason than to say that the sin of the first man has rendered guilty those who, being so removed from this source, seem incapable of participation in it. This transmission does not only seem to us impossible, it seems also very unjust. For what is more contrary to the rules of our miserable justice than to damn eternally an infant incapable of will, for a sin wherein he seems to have so little a share that it was committed six thousand years before he was in existence? Certainly nothing offends us more rudely than this doctrine; and yet without this mystery, the most incomprehensible of all, we are incomprehensible to ourselves. The knot of our condition takes its twists and turns in this abyss, so that man is more inconceivable without this mystery than this mystery is inconceivable to man.
Do you sometimes feel embarrassed by the doctrine of original sin? Well, you should not; it is the glory of Christianity to affirm the mystery that alone can explain our inner contradictions. Original sin is the iceberg on which the lofty pride of man founders.
Original sin makes man incomprehensible to himself because it makes him a contradictory mix of greatness and wretchedness. For Pascal, man is wretched for a simple reason: he cannot get what he wants. What do we really want in life? Truth and happiness; however, neither is attainable. Because we are limited creatures, we can neither ignore things completely nor know them fully. Moreover, our reason is deceived by irrational prejudice that Pascal calls our “imagination.” We cannot be happy because we feel our nothingness, so we desperately seek all kinds of distractions that Pascal describes in some of his best-known pensées.
Let each one examine his thoughts, and he will find them all occupied with the past and the future. We scarcely ever think of the present; and if we think of it, it is only to take light from it to arrange the future. The present is never our end. The past and the present are our means; the future alone is our end. So we never live, but we hope to live; and, as we are always preparing to be happy, it is inevitable we should never be so.
. . . Hence it comes that men so much love noise and stir; hence it comes that the prison is so horrible a punishment; hence it comes that the pleasure of solitude is a thing incomprehensible. And it is, in fact, the greatest source of happiness in the condition of kings that men try incessantly to divert them and to procure for them all kinds of pleasures.
Man is also filled with a curious mixture of vanity and mediocrity that Pascal mercilessly exposes in many of his pensées. Take this one for example; does it explain, at least in part, why we spend so much time on social media?
We are so presumptuous that we would wish to be known by all the world, even by people who shall come after, when we shall be no more; and we are so vain that the esteem of five or six neighbours delights and contents us.
If happiness is neither in us nor outside of us, where can we find it? Only in God.
The Stoics say, “Retire within yourselves; it is there you will find your rest.” And that is not true. Others say, “Go out of yourselves; seek happiness in amusement.” And this is not true. Illness comes. Happiness is neither without us nor within us. It is in God, both without us and within us.
Deep down, our wretchedness comes from the fact that we feel that we are no longer what we should be. As Pascal observes, who is unhappy not to be a king except a deposed king? But this, in turn, is a sign of our greatness and our superiority over animals: we are aware of our wretchedness. Animals do not have any such problem because they are not fallen as we are. This is the real difference between men and animals:
For what in animals is nature, we call in man wretchedness, by which we recognise that, his nature being now like that of animals, he has fallen from a better nature which once was his.
So, Pascal says to the unbeliever, how will you face reality? You are wretched and full of contradictions. You do not really understand anything, not even yourself, let alone God, who is incomprehensible. There is only one way out: betting on God. This is where the famous—and misunderstood—“wager” argument comes in and where it really makes sense. “Yes,” Pascal says, “you must wager. It is not optional. You are embarked. Which will you choose then?” Pascal’s point is not that people should wager on God’s existence because they have nothing to lose. Rather, it is this: “Stop kidding yourself that you do not believe in God because you are intelligent and have found good reasons for your incredulity. The truth is that you just don’t know. You must do what every human being does: wager. If you say you don’t want to wager, then you are wagering against God. There is no neutral ground in the matter.”
From that point on, Pascal puts forward a series of arguments about the veracity and reliability of Scripture. This second part of his Pensées, more focused on Scripture and rarely read, would be the subject of another study. One thing is clear, though: the truth of Christianity can be shown to be “reasonable,” but we ourselves cannot convince people of its truth. Only God can convince people of the truth of Christ, in whom alone we know God and make sense of ourselves.
Not only do we know God by Jesus Christ alone, but we know ourselves only by Jesus Christ. We know life and death only through Jesus Christ. Apart from Jesus Christ, we do not know what is our life, nor our death, nor God, nor ourselves. . . . It is not only impossible but useless to know God without Jesus Christ.
- Named after the sixteenth-century Dutch Roman Catholic theologian Cornelius Jansen. ↩︎
- Most notably Louis Lafuma (1890–1964) and Philippe Sellier (b. 1931). ↩︎
- For an edition of the Pensées in English following this new order, see Blaise Pascal, Pensées, ed. Roger Ariew (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2004). ↩︎
- Blaise Pascal, Pensées, Christian Classics Ethereal Library, accessed May 15, 2019, http://www.ccel.org/ccel/pascal/pensees.html. ↩︎