We will take a diversion this month from our current general topic of classical proofs of the existence of God. We have had four articles on the teleological and cosmological arguments, and we will in time turn also to arguments from the realms of life, thought, and morality. Not a specific type of life, thought, or morality, but a larger view that asks, “Does the presence of these categories in any form on earth constitute evidence for the existence of God?”
From science to theology
Our diversion will take us to 17th century France. We will sample some of the thoughts—Pensées—of Blaise Pascal (1623-1662), who certainly holds a firm place in that imaginary group we call “the greatest geniuses of all-time.” With original and still reliable work in hydraulics, mathematics, geometry, physics, and probability, as well as practical applications and inventions of many sorts, Pascal accomplished more in his 39 years than a complete university faculty might today in their entire careers. However, he reckoned this all as very little compared to the pursuit of the knowledge of God. Late in his brief life, he turned away from his scientific investigations to devote himself to theology and a life of austerity.1
Of poor health and an inherently weak constitution, Pascal probably sensed that he might not have time to complete what he would consider his greatest contribution. Thus, he wrote out over 900 germinal ideas grouped under various headings that would demonstrate the superiority of “the Christian Religion.” He hoped he might live long enough to expand each of these, but such was not the case; many of them remained just a few enigmatic words, though other ideas seem to have come to full fruition. After his death, friends collected, sorted, and published them as what we know today as Pensées of Blaise Pascal.
One might be tempted to compare Pascal to Isaac Newton (1642-1727), another mega-genius who included serious work in theology in his scope of study. Unlike Newton, who was known for an unorthodox theology (in many points similar to our position),2 Pascal remained tied to the orthodoxy of his day. He belonged to an austere Catholic sect known as the Jansenists, which the mainline Catholics heavily opposed and eventually destroyed. We might not think that we could harvest very much from such an unlikely origin, but a reading of Pensées informs us otherwise. While we certainly wouldn’t endorse much of his theology, Pascal’s trenchant insights and concise expression (often in the form of couplets) provided us a valuable resource. I don’t know if he always meant what I would have liked him to mean, but he had a marvelous facility to say what I believe. It is in the spirit of taking them at face value that we offer them here.
Biographies and studies of his output abound, as his life is well documented and most of his work has been preserved. We only need a brief synopsis to locate his writings in a cultural and intellectual context. Pascal was born into a well-to-do government official’s family. His mother died when he was but three years of age, and his older sister Gabrielle nourished his intellectual interests. His father thought that education should begin with languages, but after mastering the classics by age 12, Blaise became fascinated with scientific observations, geometry, and mathematics. In a day when there was no profession of “scientist,” and no distinctions were made between the various fields of inquiry, Pascal’s intellect was not stifled by protocol. He invented a calculating machine that became widely used in commerce, and he proposed and designed the first public transportation system in Paris, a series of regularly scheduled carriages circling the city. He invented the barometer and proved the existence of air pressure. He also proved the existence of a vacuum, an idea then rejected as theoretically impossible. His work in hydraulics led to the formulation of Pascal’s Law, which states that an external force acting on a fluid in a closed container is uniformly distributed within the container, a fundamental principle upon which all hydraulic devices work.
Pascal is probably best known for his work in probability, a field that he essentially invented. Turning his mind to the popular games of chance, he devised betting strategies by including both the odds of an event happening and the risk/reward of the wager. He saw this as an intellectual exercise, and later worked it into a unique argument for believing in God known as Pascal’s wager.3
Despite his extraordinary accomplishments, Pascal sensed an emptiness in his life that could only be filled by God. Later in life he ceased his scientific work, gave away most of his wealth to the poor, and lived in poverty in a monastery. One of the recurring themes in Pensées is the ultimate failure of knowledge of the physical world to satisfy the deepest longings of the human soul.
Pascal divided life into three categories: the things of the body (the material world), the things of the mind (knowledge and reason), and the domain of the heart, where faith and connection to God resided. He subjugated all physical aspects of life as inferior to mind, but mind was equally inferior to the heart. Religion, though thoroughly reasonable and demonstrably true, was ultimately a matter of heart. “The knowledge of God is very far from the love of Him” (Pensées, 280).
The arrangement and themes in Pensées
Eight years after his death, Pascal’s friends published his collected fragments in 14 sections, or chapters, with titles such as “The Misery of Man Without God,” “The Philosophers,” “The Means of Belief,” and “Proofs of Jesus Christ.” I have selected a number of excerpts, which I have grouped in headings more useful for the purpose of sampling Pascal’s insights on matters of religion and belief.
Although Pensées is considered a classic work in apologetics, the range of thought goes beyond the usual topics we would include, and this scope in itself is a useful lesson. For instance, much of his thoughts centered on human nature, the human condition, and redemption by grace. He considered the scriptural view of humanity in itself a proof of Christianity. I have long endorsed a similar view, that we sometimes have our apologetics backwards. We look at prophecy and history to verify scripture and establish our basic principles, but I say that it is the uniqueness and intellectual and moral superiority of the scriptural world-view that gives credence to its historical veracity. On this matter we have more to say much later in this series.
For the remainder of this article and continuing into the next, I have selected some of my favorite excerpts from the 923 entries in Pensées.4 They are grouped under the topics listed below, with some explanatory notes and comments.
- Human nature and the huma condition
- The grace of God
- Evidences & prophecy
1. On human nature and the human condition
The following excerpt from #100 displays both Pascal’s fine rhetoric and clear insight into human nature. He considered that the scriptural depiction of human depravity demonstrated one of the most potent strains of apologetics, hence several entries in this vein.
Self-love—The nature of self-love and of this human ego is to love self only and consider self only. But what will man do? He cannot prevent this object that he loves from being full of faults and wants. He wants to be great, and he sees himself small. He wants to be happy, and he sees himself miserable. He wants to be perfect, and he sees himself full of imperfections. He wants to be the object of love and esteem among men, and he sees that his faults merit only their hatred and contempt. This embarrassment in which he finds himself produces in him the most unrighteous and criminal passion that can be imagined; for he conceives a mortal enmity against the truth that reproves him, and which convinces him of his faults…he devotes all his attention to hiding his faults both from others and from himself, and he cannot endure either that others should point them out to him, or that they should see them.
Truly it is an evil to be full of faults, but it is a still greater evil to be full of them and unwilling to recognise them.
However, Pascal did not view humanity as only vile and contemptible: the inherent contradiction of our condition is that we are at once depraved and yet potentially suited out for communion with God. Read these magnificent excerpts from #434 and #435:
What a chimera then is man! What a novelty! What a monster, what a chaos, what a contradiction, what a prodigy! Judge of all things, imbecile worm of the earth; depositary of truth, a sink of uncertainty and error; the pride and refuse of the universe! If man had never been corrupt, he would enjoy in his innocence both truth and happiness with assurance; and if man had always been corrupt, he would have no idea of truth or bliss. But, wretched as we are…we have an idea of happiness, and cannot reach it.
For it [Christianity] teaches the righteous that it raises them even to a participation in divinity itself; that in this lofty state they still carry the source of all corruption, which renders them during their life subject to error, misery, death, and sin; and it proclaims to the most ungodly that they are capable of the grace of their Redeemer.
We cannot have a meaningful relationship with anyone unless we know the true nature of both parties in the relationship. So it is with God. We must know Him, who He is; and we must know ourselves. The Bible clearly presents our potential for both evil and grace, and this idea formed one of Pascal’s favorite subjects; the excerpts below are from #418 and #397:
It is dangerous to make man see too clearly his equality with the brutes without showing him his greatness. It is also dangerous to make him see his greatness too clearly, apart from his vileness. It is still more dangerous to leave him in ignorance of both. But it is very advantageous to show him both. Man must not think that he is on a level either with the brutes or with the angels, nor must he be ignorant of both sides of his nature; but he must know both.
The greatness of man is great in that he knows himself to be miserable. A tree does not know itself to be miserable. It is then being miserable to know oneself to be miserable; but it is also being great to know that one is miserable.
Moving on to another topic in human nature, Pascal had much to say on the nature of knowledge and belief—what we would call today epistemology. In #72, one of the longest entries and a wonderful discourse on the nature of knowledge, he reflects on our position in the universe:
For in fact, what is man in nature? A Nothing in comparison with the infinite, an All in comparison with the Nothing, a mean between nothing and everything. Since he is infinitely removed from comprehending the extremes, the end of things and their beginning are hopelessly hidden from him in an impenetrable secret; he is equally incapable of seeing the Nothing from which he was made, and the Infinite in which he is swallowed up.
Remember, this came from the pen of one of the greatest scientific minds of all time, so his point is not that we are ignorant and cannot possibly know anything with certainty. Pascal believed that the greatest truths of the universe, those of religion, were not available through scientific inquiry, not by reason, but by faith. Science has only to do with the material world and the world of thought, but not the greatest dimension, that of the heart, whence comes faith. Reason and evidence supported Christianity, but faith allowed one to know God.
Physical science will not console me for the ignorance of morality in the time of affliction. But the science of ethics will always console me for the ignorance of the physical sciences. (67)
Number 99 has keen insight on why some people believe and some don’t, when faced with the same evidence:
There is a universal and essential difference between the actions of the will and all other actions. The will is one of the chief factors in belief, not that it creates belief, but because things are true or false according to the aspect in which we look at them. The will, which prefers one aspect to another, turns away the mind from considering the qualities of all that it does not like to see; and thus the mind, moving in accord with the will, stops to consider the aspect which it likes, and so judges by what it sees.
It is no wonder that some people who know the truth turn away from it, despite its overwhelming reasonableness and evidence. They are in love with this world and the pride of life, lusts of the flesh. They don’t have the will (or heart, his preferred word) to believe.
The following brief observation is so true, yet it is violated by virtually everyone on the face of the earth. Let us look at this as exhortation, reminding ourselves that if we deem ourselves as belonging to the first half of the couplet, serving God with all our heart is the only reasonable way of life:
Finally, let them [atheists] recognise that there are two kinds of people one can call reasonable; those who serve God with all their heart because they know Him, and those who seek him with all their heart because they don’t know him. But as for those who live without knowing Him and without seeking Him, they judge themselves so little worthy of their own care that they are not worthy of the care of others; and it needs all the charity of the religion which they despise, not to despise them even to the point of leaving them in their own folly. (194).
Pascal goes on to say that as long as such persons are alive, they have the possibility of reversing their opinion, and as long as we are alive, we have the possibility of “falling into the blindness wherein they are.”
3. The grace of God
The following excerpts about God are general enough that we can find much good in them. Certainly, Pascal reveals his Catholicism in other entries; overall these are few and really don’t constitute much of a distraction. His general description of God’s grace is usually well stated in content and lovely in expression. These excerpts are similar to those about human nature, but they add the dimension of God to our wretched state.
The conduct of God, who disposes all things kindly, is to put religion into the mind by reason, and into the heart by grace. But to will to put it into the mind and heart by force and threats is not to put religion there, but terror. (185)
We must begin by showing them [atheists] 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; and finally, we must prove it is true. Venerable, because it has perfect knowledge of man; lovable, because it promises the true good. (187)
Pascal deftly handles the age-old question of a religion of knowledge and a religion of the heart. Religion must be reasonable and provable, but that alone does not yield devotion to God. When we experience grace, then we have an encounter with God in our heart.
Also, and we must remember the cultural context of 17th centuryFrancehere, religion cannot be forced upon anyone; it must come from individual conviction. We have here also a familiar theme, that “the perfect knowledge of man” (that is, the description of human nature as given in scripture) is one of the great evidences of Christianity.
Two brief entries, #510 and #511 speak of our relationship with God. The last clause of #511, “we must indeed be very great to judge it” is one of the many contradictions Pascal exposes. One might say, “I am too insignificant and too sinful for God to accept me.” Pascal’s reply (paraphrased) says, “If you are clever enough to know God’s mind, then perhaps you are not as insignificant after all!”
Man is not worthy of God, but he is not incapable of being made worthy. It is unworthy of God to unite Himself to wretched man; but it is not unworthy of God to pull him out of his misery.
If we would say that man is too insignificant to deserve communion with God, we must indeed be very great to judge of it.
In #555, the first entry under the heading “The Fundamentals of the Christian Religion,” Pascal contrasts the personal God of our worship with various conceptions of philosophers, deists, and heathens.
The God of Christians is not a God who is simply the author of mathematical truths, or of the order of the elements; that is the view of heathens and Epicureans. He is not merely a God who exercises His providence over the life and fortunes of men, to bestow on those who worship Him a long and happy life. That was the portion of the Jews. But the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob, the God of Christians, is a God of love and of comfort, a God who fills the soul and heart of those whom He possesses, a God who makes them conscious of their inward wretchedness, and His infinite mercy, who unites Himself to their inmost soul, who fills it with humility and joy, with confidence and love, who renders them incapable of any other end than Himself.
We ought to ask this question of ourselves: “Does my being a Christadelphian render me incapable of any other end than God? If not, what is lacking? Is it the knowledge of God, the will to serve him wholly, the heart to accept His grace, or all of these?”
Next time we will look at examples of Pascal’s thoughts on what we consider more conventional topics in apologetics, namely, prophecy and evidences for scriptural authority and integrity.
David Levin, Lancaster, Pennsylvania
1 The background information on Pascal’s life comes from two biographies, both accessible and well organized. Hugh Davidson, Blaise Pascal (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1983), 150 p. Roger Hazelton, Blaise Pascal: The Genius of His Thought (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1974), 218p.
2Newton’s theology is well known as strikingly similar to Christadelphian doctrinal statements. His character, however, seemed to be little conformed to a follower of Christ. There is a very uncomplimentary biographical note onNewton at the end of Steven Hawking’s A Brief History of Time.
3 Pascal’s wager (from Pensée 233) probably gets overused as an example of Pascal’s thought. The “wager” states that because everyone must make a choice one way or the other on the matter of God’s existence, but the “payoff” of believing is infinitely great if God does exist, and the risk negligible if He doesn’t, it therefore makes sense to choose belief. This might sound as if Pascal simplistically thought that one should “believe just in case,” but other entries tell us that he accepted only a belief of sincere devotion.
4 All quotes from Pensées taken from The Works of Pascal, (New York: Random House), 1941, 311p. No translator is listed.