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, 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 scholars 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. This is that argument that I would like to outline very briefly.
The following introductory pensée (in Trotter’s translation) 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.