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Pascal: The First Modern Christian by Edward T. Oakes

Blaise Pascal

Blaise Pascal

As a way of dividing up history into discrete, manageable wholes, the habit of clustering events according to centuries is probably no more (or less) superficial than any other. And surely it must be safer and more reliable than bandying about such descriptive monikers as “the Age of Faith,” “the Enlightenment,” “the Atomic Age,” and so on, for at least the century-unit is known to be arbitrary, stemming as it does from the decimal system of numbering, which itself probably arose from the happenstance of ten fingers on the pair of human hands.

Unfortunately, the broad-stroke descriptive label, like some post-it note that sticks to everything it touches, will often enough get applied to the century marker in any case-despite the objections of more fastidious historians, who rightly fear that this habit of nomenclature may seduce the unwary. For such catch-all tags as “Age of Anxiety,” “Age of Chivalry,” etc. can be wildly inaccurate, or at least too sweeping. And no name for a century has been more misleading than that often used for the seventeenth: the Age of Reason. Not only did this century see the worst of the witch-hunting craze, but it also had to endure the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), at root a European civil war of religion — and, like all wars of religion, a clash of unbridled irrationality.

Yet just as centuries take on a certain inevitable identity from the very habit of invoking them so often (hence this Millennium Series), so too do these centuries soon come to assume the very descriptive characteristics by which they have so frequently been identified. Not for nothing has the seventeenth century, despite its infamous displays of irrationality, been known as the Age of Reason. Any century that began with René Descartes (1596-1650) as a five-year-old boy and concluded with Voltaire (1694-1778) as a seven-year-old, and during which Isaac Newton (1642-1727) and Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716) lived most of their lives and Baruch Spinoza all of his (1632-1677), is bound to strike later centuries as an eminently rational era.

However repellent and violent the wars of religion were or however vehement the waning years of the witch-burning craze undoubtedly must have been, we cannot help but see the seventeenth century in terms of what our civilization has embraced and what, on the basis of that embrace, it has abjured. Wars of religion and witch-burning appall. Reason is hailed as the splendor of our species (yes, even today, despite what the Nietzscheans and Heideggerians might claim). Thus the Age of Reason is celebrated for what we most value in it, and in ourselves. We condemn its horrors, but only on the basis of its glories.

Indeed, very few textbooks in the history of philosophy would deny to Descartes, that quintessential man of the seventeenth century, the title of Founding Father of modern philosophy — and precisely because of his systematic and methodical elevation of reason. His method for rational inquiry, based on consistently held doubt toward all doctrinaire assumptions of the human mind, is usually seen as modernity’s decisive break-out from the fettering chains of the medieval synthesis, which itself was formed from a prior fusion of reason and faith painstakingly soldered together over several centuries in the late Middle Ages. Because of Descartes, reason now regards itself as a fully adult faculty, free at last of the tutelage of dogma and tradition. It is to Descartes, above all, that we owe the idea of rationality as an all-purpose acid through which every tenaciously held belief of the human mind must pass.

In that setting Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) emerges as the man who became, as I shall argue in the rest of this essay, “the first modern Christian.” I would even include in that judgment the deep reticence and privacy of his spiritual life, for Pascal rarely revealed the movements of his soul to any but his most trusted spiritual directors. Modernity often regards religion as a private affair of the heart and looks askance at too public displays of religious emotion; and there too Pascal strikes a remarkably modern note. Except for a few passing references in his letters, he rarely mentioned even the most important biographical milestones that determined his career. In fact, it is only because he sewed a parchment memorial of the event inside his coat pocket that history knows of the most important incident in his life-his “Night of Fire” on November 23, 1654, when for about two hours he was overwhelmed by tears of joy at the realization that the God of the philosophers was not the God of the Bible. No doubt he had always recognized what history has since come to acknowledge: that his legacy to us is due more to his thought than to his life.

He was born in the city of Clermont-Ferrard, in the south-central region of Auvergne, in 1623. His father was a government official, mostly in the royal court system, who at death (in 1651) left a comfortable sum to his one son and two daughters. In 1631 the father moved to Paris and later took up a post as tax assessor in Rouen, a tedious job that required long hours of dreary number-crunching. Seeing these grinding labors of his father, son Blaise struck upon the idea of building him a computer, the first ever invented and which is still on display in Paris at the Conservatoire des Arts et Métiers.

This remarkable achievement had already been foreshadowed by an event recounted by his older sister Gilberte. Blaise’s father had assumed the entire responsibility for his son’s education and had forbidden the boy to study or read geometry until he had first mastered Latin and Greek. But one day the father happened to come upon his precocious twelve-year-old, with charcoal and scrap paper on the floor, working out, totally untutored, Euclid’s geometry up to the thirty-second proposition. Whether strictly true or merely bien trouvé, the story points to Pascal’s universally acknowledged mathematical genius. In 1639, for example, at the age of sixteen, he wrote an essay on conic sections; and toward the end of his life he laid the foundations of the infinitesimal calculus, integral calculus, and the calculus of probabilities in a work that inspired Newton and Leibniz, more or less simultaneously and more or less independently of each other, to bring the development of calculus to where it is today. (Newton and Leibniz later got into a nasty dispute about who first discovered calculus, time that would have been better spent acknowledging their mutual debt to Pascal.)

The accidents of Pascal’s biography also illuminate, at least partly, his famous attack on those sworn enemies of Jansenist theology, the Jesuit moralists, who were not loath to point out how Jansenism bore certain affinities with French Huguenot Calvinism. Now the great center of Jansenist theology and spirituality at that time was the convent of Port-Royal, where Pascal’s younger sister Jacqueline had entered and which the Jesuits eventually prevailed upon an aging King Louis XIV to close once Popes Innocent X, Alexander VII, and Clement XI had successively declared Jansenism a heresy. Although the convent only closed after Pascal’s death, persecution of anyone associated with Port-Royal had already begun in his lifetime. Needless to say, the primary victims of this highhanded example of ecclesiastical Machtpolitik were not the Jansenist theologians (all male) but a convent of pious women who cared little for the subtleties of tractates on grace but who knew their Jansenist spiritual directors to be holy men. Such considerations meant nothing to an absolutist king and his Jesuit confessors, however, and royal persecution of the convent remained relentless, a campaign that made Pascal an enemy of the Jesuits for the rest of his life.

An essay treating Pascal’s wider millennial significance cannot discuss in any detail the nature of his rather arcane dispute with the moral theologians of the Society of Jesus. But of his Provincial Letters, the collection of polemical tracts that had been provoked by the dispute, the last word should perhaps be given to the balanced judgment of T. S. Eliot: “He undoubtedly abused the art of quotation, as a polemical writer can hardly help but do; but there were abuses for him to abuse.” Eliot is not excusing Pascal’s ferocity here, even in the act of admitting that his targets deserved criticism. Quite the contrary, Eliot gets exactly the right balance when he says that “as polemic [these letters] are surpassed by none, not by Demosthenes, or Cicero, or Swift. [But] they have the limitation of all polemic and forensic: they persuade, they seduce, they are unfair.”

Of course if this were all there was to Pascal, he would be merely the curiosity of the specialist, the fit subject of research for the historian of mathematics or the scholar of Counter-Reformation theology in France. But Pascal is more, much more. What makes him so utterly remarkable, indeed so remarkably modern, is the fact that he became the first Christian apologist both to absorb the Cartesian apotheosis of reason and to fight against its acidic effects, often using Descartes’ own principles. In fact, so thoroughly did Pascal absorb the Cartesian outlook that from time to time one will find a philosophy textbook that classifies Pascal as the first and most influential member of the Cartesian school-a categorization which would certainly have come as a surprise to Pascal himself, most of whose references to Descartes in the jottings that make up the Pensées are derogatory. (Two examples: “Descartes useless and uncertain.” “Write against those who probe science too deeply. Descartes.”)

But perhaps there is a certain justice in this unhelpful pigeonholing of Pascal as a Cartesian, especially when one considers his essay “The Spirit of Geometry and the Art of Persuasion.” Here more than elsewhere he strikes the Cartesian note, as when he suggests that “logic has perhaps borrowed the rules of geometry without understanding their force.” As with Descartes, and Spinoza after him, the ideal rational method for Pascal is what he calls the “geometrical” method, using mathematical rules of inference from accepted or self-evident axioms. Pascal means to set his purely mathematical form of inference over against the logical method of Aristotle, especially as it had been developed and extended by the medieval schoolmen. In this he is clearly presuming, as did Descartes, that medieval logic and “geometry” (in his sense) somehow conflict, to the detriment of all prior logic.

The two Frenchmen also share a noticeable dualism about the constitution of the human person, and here perhaps most of all we discover how much Descartes and Pascal have in common. Both men see human beings as a riddling composition of juxtaposed, antithetical essences (body and mind, flesh and spirit, extension and thinking), a dualism which in Pascal comes through most particularly in his famous definition of man as a “thinking reed.” Both Descartes and Pascal, as true early moderns standing on the threshold of imminent discoveries of the universe’s immensity from ever-improving telescopes, suspect the vast extension of space; but as true dualists (dualists who, moreover, give precedence to the mind) they also know that mind or consciousness can somehow possess and encompass that space in the very act of knowing it.

Pascal differs from Descartes’ rather bloodless rationalism, however, in the explicitly theological implications he will try to draw from this anthropological dualism. He is alert, as Descartes rarely is, to the religious and ethical implications of this dualism of mind and body:

Thinking reed. It is not in space that I must look for my dignity, but in the organization of my thoughts. I shall have no advantage in owning estates. Through space the universe grasps and engulfs me like a pinpoint; but through thought I can grasp it. . . . All our dignity consists, therefore, of thought. It is from there that we must be lifted up and not from space and time, which we could never fill. So let us work on thinking well. That is the principle of morality.

No doubt this passage will strike most readers as a remarkable summary of Cartesian metaphysics, especially in its reliance on the famous distinction between the nonspatial “thinking thing” (mind) and the space-occupying “extended thing” (body). But even here we can pick up the characteristic tone of the Pascalian stress on morality: far from trying à la Descartes to take this initial dualism as the basis on which to build a rickety philosophical superstructure, Pascal wants to see in the baffling juxtaposition of these two irreconcilable substances the very pathos of human existence itself. “Man’s nature is entirely natural, wholly animal,” he concedes. “There is nothing that cannot be made natural.” But that is also why, he says, “there is nothing that cannot be lost.”

Nothing, then, is exempt from the death sentence of nature, not even knowledge, not even spirit-which is why, as Pascal says, “man’s true nature, his true good and true virtue, and true religion cannot be known separately.” In other words, to admit the essential animality of human nature, right through to the soul, becomes for Pascal the beginning of rational wisdom. Indeed, morality begins with this admission: not in a flight from nature but in a recognition of its misery and corruption. (Note that Pascal’s first conclusion from his mind/body dualism is not epistemological, but moral: there is no point in owning vast “spatial” estates, he says above, precisely because the soul is nonspatial.)

In fact few thinkers, when read carefully, would seem less Cartesian than Pascal, even in his philosophy of science, which at first glance seems so Cartesian, with its praise of the “geometrical” mind. Actually, for all his brilliance as a mathematician and despite his awe before the geometrical method, Pascal gives a much more ringing defense of the empirical method than any of the British empiricists managed to do, and he certainly grants to the senses a much larger role than any of his fellow Continental Rationalists could muster. Today we can see that the British Empiricists went too far and misinterpreted rationality as a mere generalization of sensation, while the Continental Rationalists went to the other extreme because they could not grant the exalted title “knowledge” to any but rational truths. But Pascal, anticipating the errors of both schools and sounding almost like a disciple of W. V. Quine avant la lettre, was able to balance rational and empirical, a priori and a posteriori reasoning with a remarkably contemporary note. “When we say that the diamond is the hardest of all bodies,” he observes in his fragmentary Treatise on the Vacuum, “we mean of all bodies with which we are acquainted. We cannot and ought not to include those bodies of which we are entirely ignorant. . . . For in all matters in which proof consists in experiences and not in demonstrations, one cannot make any universal assertion save by general enumeration of all the parts and of all the different cases.”

This principle might seem obvious today, but its application had an unsettling effect on the mind of contemporary natural philosophers trained in medieval scholastic physics. In 1648 Pascal’s brother-in-law carried a barometer up a mountain and observed how the level of mercury changed with the height of the mountain. Pascal then repeated the experiment by checking the mercury levels at various heights inside a Parisian church tower, the results of which prompted him to exclaim: “Nature has no abhorrence of a vacuum, she makes no effort to avoid it. . . . Due to their lack of knowledge of this phenomenon, people have invented a wholly imaginary horror of a vacuum.” As noted philosopher of science Richard H. Popkin rightly observes: “Combining his ingeniously derived experimental data with a clear analysis of the possible explanatory hypotheses, Pascal arrived at one of the major achievements of seventeenth-century science.”

But Pascal is even more noticeably anti-Cartesian in his concern for the Christian religion. Descartes famously loathed theological disputes and avoided their entanglements whenever possible. Pascal, as his acrimonious debates with the Jesuits attest, entered the fray of theological infighting with startling gusto and vehemence. But what most of his contemporaries, both friend and foe, failed during his lifetime to see about his motivation emerged only after his death, when his younger sister gathered together the shards and disjecta membra of his notes for a projected work of apologetics and published them in the form we know today as the Pensées.

From this remarkable work we now realize that Pascal saw himself, above all, as Christ’s apologete and defender against Christianity’s rationalist scoffers (whereas Descartes in contrast knew himself primarily, indeed only, as a scientist and philosopher). No doubt Pascal always remained heavily indebted to Descartes’ dualism of mind and matter, but in his apologetics for Christianity he transforms Cartesian dualism into merely one aspect of a much deeper and more central dualism: not between spirit and matter but between God’s holiness and human misery, not between soul and body but between God’s infinity and man’s sin. Christ came to heal these more agonizing divisions-divisions rooted not in incompatible metaphysical essences but in the pathos of the enfleshed soul trapped in sin. The Incarnation thus becomes a balm applied to man’s riven soul, torn not so much between spirit and flesh as between despair and pride.

[The Christian religion] teaches men both these truths: that there is a God of whom we are capable, and that a corruption in our nature makes us unworthy of Him. It is equally important for us to know both these points; for it is equally dangerous for man to know God without knowing his own wretchedness, and to know his wretchedness without knowing the Redeemer who can cure him of it. Knowledge of only one of these points leads either to the arrogance of the philosophers, who have known God and not their own wretchedness, or to the despair of the atheists, who know their wretchedness without knowing the Redeemer.

We can see from these remarks that for Pascal Descartes’ dualism is missing a crucial element: he has failed to provide an analysis of the moral dangers to which the human spirit is prone precisely because of its capacity for an infinite reach to the very ends of the universe. Pascal openly affirms with Descartes that our capacity to know the universe makes us masters, in some paradoxical sense, of the universe we conceive. But our capacity to “grasp” the universe and transform it into a mental construct of our knowing powers remains both paradox and pathos: we always accomplish these acts of knowing as puny, pathetic, and vulnerable bodies, whose corruption eventually leads to death.

This knowing mind, however, would rather remain enamored of its cognitive powers than acknowledge that this knowing power is an organic function of the brain. (Philosopher John Searle calls the brain “cognitive meat,” which nicely captures in the minor key of neuroscience Pascal’s more metaphysical definition in the major key of man as a “thinking reed.”) Fearing the inevitable dissolution of its powers, the mind hides from itself the reality of its own insignificance. Second only to cognition itself, the most notable fact of the human mind lies in its tendency to forget the realities of its corruption and death.

Hence the central temptation of man is always pride. (Thus did the Serpent tempt Adam and Eve.) For Pascal, pride is a deeply functional sin: it works to help us forget. The mind shrinks from recognizing its status as a thinking reed by hiding under a carapace of pride. Characteristically, Descartes failed to notice this pathos; a missing element that, like the non-barking dog that became the decisive clue in the Sherlock Holmes story, tells us why Cartesian philosophy is more culprit than detective, more likely, that is, to lead us astray than to bring us to the truth.

But despite a few stray remarks in the Pensées that attack Descartes, Pascal’s intent there is not, fundamentally, polemical. Throughout this fascinating book of almost random observations the reader soon picks up the author’s driving motivation. Pascal above all wants to explain to his post-Cartesian contemporaries how the pathos of human nature has its own “balm in Gilead,” a healing ointment in Jesus Christ, who is the very divine incarnation of these human oppositions. But of course Jesus Christ can only be accepted as Christ (the “anointed one”) if one first admits that human nature needs His healing balm. Christ’s coming on earth thus has the odd effect of eliciting hate precisely because His presence in history will reopen wounds that our distracted culture thought had been healed not by His balm but by the iodine of hyperactivity.

No wonder, then, that modernity since the Enlightenment has taken scandal in Jesus Christ. Even inside our own culture, which is often called “post”-modern because of its self-image of being more accommodating to local traditions and intercultural understanding than was Enlightened modernity, Christianity still is made to feel something like the bastard son who shows up uninvited at the annual family picnic. Inside all the talk about multiculturalism, contemporary culture often balks at including Christianity in its “gorgeous mosaic.” This uneasiness has sometimes been dubbed the “ABC Rule,” meaning “anything but Christianity.” Undoubtedly Pascal would amend that to mean “anyone but Christ,” for at root that is where the scandal lies. Christianity’s scandal is not just itself (though it is that as well, which is no doubt why the Pope wants the Church formally to repent of her institutional sins); its real scandal is Jesus Christ. And He is the stumbling block precisely because to accept Him is first of all to admit one’s hopelessness without Him. Pride and life in Christ are inherently incompatible.

Pride tells us we can know God without Jesus Christ, in effect that we can communicate with God without a mediator. But this only means that we are communicating with a God who is the [prideful] result that comes from being known without a mediator. Whereas those who have known God through a mediator know their own wretchedness. Not only is it impossible to know God without Jesus Christ, it is also useless. . . . [For] knowing God without knowing our wretchedness leads to pride. Knowing our wretchedness without knowing God leads to despair. Knowing Jesus Christ is the middle course, because in Him we find both God and our wretchedness.

Because he wants the Incarnation to be a cure appropriate to the disease and because the death of Christ on the cross is indeed a most radical cure, implying a serious illness, Pascal is usually categorized as a “pessimistic” thinker-he wants his readers to see how far advanced the disease infecting them really is. And certainly he can be unsparing in his portrayal of the fleshly corruption and frail constitution of that “bruised and crushed reed” that is the human body. No doubt he could describe the corruption of the flesh so well partly because his own health was so appallingly bad, perhaps the worst of any Christian mystic with the exception of Teresa of Ávila and Adrienne von Speyr. (In fact, at his autopsy it was discovered that the fontanel-the “soft spot” on an infant’s skull-had never been closed over in Pascal’s case by the formation of skull bone, so that Pascal lived his entire life with an unclosed cranium, which certainly provides a weird intensity to his definition of man as a “thinking reed.”) But in depicting human wretchedness Pascal never wallows in scenes of grim despair but simply faces the human condition as it is, universally. In fact for Pascal, as for Dostoevsky later, the real issue comes down not to the sheer immensity of human suffering but more crucially to the fact that human suffering only has to occur once for the issue of man’s predicament to be raised.

But Dostoevsky (or at least his fictional character Ivan Karamazov) takes the fact of just one child suffering and on that basis assumes the role of being humanity’s “prosecuting attorney,” as it were, charging God to justify Himself as God in the face of that one moment of evil. Pascal lived well before this style of what is often called “protest atheism,” but if he were transported to Ivan Karamazov’s celestial courtroom as “attorney for the defense,” as it were, he would surely turn the argument around and put the challenge to the whole courtroom: anyone who would presume to act as spectator to this suffering (as judge and jury must do in order to fulfill their roles) has a challenge to face too. What Pascal would say, in other words, is that as long as we take the spectator’s part and view human suffering from the outside, then, no matter how happy our circumstances are at the moment, we must know ourselves fundamentally as wretched beings. “Imagine a number of men in chains, all under sentence of death,” he would say to the courtroom as he did in the Pensées, “some of whom are each day butchered in the sight of the others; those remaining see their own condition in that of their fellows, and looking at each other with grief and despair await their turn. This is an image of the human condition.”

Especially in this era of terrorists parading their hostages in front of the world’s television screens, or hijackers holding a pistol to the head of an airline pilot for all the world to behold, or high school students hiding under cafeteria tables while their friends are being murdered by their own peers, we immediately recognize the truth of what Pascal is saying. But Pascal does not intend to force his readers to wallow in this misery. Rather, his depiction of the human condition is meant only to create the first opening through which we hear God’s response to that misery. Such a response, like the answer of the Almighty to Job, will be no courtroom defense speech. Jansenist that he was, Pascal firmly believed that “God owes us nothing,” and so Dostoevsky’s formulation would have been inconceivable to him. And yet, however inadequate it might be in the eyes of the “protest atheist” (who, as a spectator of suffering, must perforce judge God from the outside), God’s answer is not nothing. But that answer cannot even be heard if we do not admit the realities of the human condition in all their bleakness. Even as spectators, we suffer what we are forced to see. Television screens force us to become spectators of appalling suffering, but the situation they reveal is rooted in everyone’s nature. There is no escape from its pathos, only balm for our wounds-if we are willing to accept the astringency of the ointment.

Of course, not many want that kind of painful healing, making it well-nigh inevitable that we will avail ourselves of distractions from our woes. Few words, in fact, are more crucial to Pascal than divertissement, usually translated as “diversion” or “distraction.” One of Pascal’s most famous observations, found in nearly every anthology of quotations, holds that “all the misfortunes of men derive from one single thing, their inability to remain at repose in a room.” Far from being merely the obiter dictum of a dry cynic, Pascal’s remark actually forms the opening gambit of his Christian apologetics, for he knows that “being unable to cure death, wretchedness, and ignorance,” and being not too fond of the medicine of Christ on offer either, “men have decided, in order to be happy, not to think about such things.” “Pessimist” that he is, however, Pascal refuses to let us evade God’s answer to our plight just because we would rather not advert to our distress in the first place. “That is why men are so fond of hustle and bustle,” he says. “That is why prison is such a fearful punishment; that is why the pleasures of solitude are so incomprehensible.”

This craving for distraction is so overriding and exigent that for Pascal it actually constitutes the driving force of ambition. In one sharply worded paragraph in the Pensées, he asserts that the main joy of being a king is the opportunity it affords for endless distraction, since courtiers are continually trying to keep the king’s mind off his mortality and provide him every kind of pleasure. “A king is surrounded by people whose only thought is to divert him so that he might be kept from thinking about himself, because, king though he is, he becomes unhappy as soon as he thinks about himself.”

But what applies to the ambitions of a king applies equally well to the motivations of all men. We crave distractions because we do not want to face the realities of the human condition. And because we are unwilling to admit our despair, we perforce cannot face the thought of applying the appropriate balm to heal these unacknowledged wounds. Consequently we hurl ourselves into an endless round of diversions, jobs, hobbies, etc., all to avoid our nature as thinking reeds:

Man is obviously made for thinking. Therein lies all his dignity and his merit; and his whole duty is to think as he ought. Now the order of thought is to begin with ourselves, and with our Author and our end. But what does the world think about? Never about that, but about dancing, playing the lute, singing, writing verse, jousting and fighting, becoming a king, without ever thinking what it means to be a king or to be a man.

Like Kierkegaard and Heidegger after him, Pascal was an acute student of boredom, and saw in this phenomenon (actually rather puzzling when one thinks about it) the clue to the very pathos of the human condition. Generally speaking, says Pascal, “we think either of present woes or of threatened miseries.” But moments occur in almost everyone’s experience when life reaches a temporary pause of homeostasis, when we feel quite safe on every side, when bad health does not threaten, when bill collectors are not baying at the door, when rush-hour traffic is light and the weather pleasant. But precisely at such moments “boredom on its own account emerges from the depths of our hearts, where it is naturally rooted, and poisons our whole mind.” Not just the king craves diversion. So terrified are we of boredom that the king’s ambition is our own.

I have called Pascal “the first modern Christian” because, among other reasons, our civilization, in contrast to all other past civilizations, gets its very identity from the sheer range of distractions that have now been made available to us, from hundreds of channels on cable TV to over a thousand video cassettes on the shelf of any self-respecting video rental agency to the millions of websites on the Internet, group activities of every sort imaginable, aerobics classes, talk-show radio on the air twenty-four hours a day, and so on. As the literary journalist Norman Cousins observed in his book Human Options:

Our own age is not likely to be distinguished in history for the large numbers of people who insisted on finding the time to think. Plainly, this is not the Age of Meditative Man. . . . Substitutes for repose are a billion dollar business. Almost daily, new antidotes for contemplation spring into being and leap out from store counters. Silence, already the world’s most critical shortage, is in danger of becoming a nasty word. Modern man may or may not be obsolete, but he is certainly wired for sound and he twitches as naturally as he breathes.

Of course no one denies the legitimate need for entertainment or the role that diversion plays in generating demand for the works of art that have become the glory of our species. Often life achieves its goal of testifying to its own goodness as worth living when a human being is able to enjoy the highest benefits of culture. I personally count myself most glad to be alive when I am enjoying a good meal with a friend, listening to Mozart in the privacy of my room, or reading a good book. Nor, despite his seeming Jansenist severity, would Pascal contemn such pleasures. Even he, the least therapeutic writer imaginable, admits that diversions can help to heal the beset soul (“that is why the man who lost his only son a few months ago and who was so troubled and oppressed this morning by lawsuits and quarrels is for the moment [because of a fleeting diversion] not thinking about it”).

But our extraordinary obsession with entertainment and distraction constitutes perhaps the hallmark of our civilization in contrast to past cultures. From the time the clock radio goes off in the morning to the late-night talk shows, the average denizen of contemporary culture need never be alone, encounter silence, or have to listen to the voice within. As Pascal says: “We run heedlessly into the abyss after putting something in front of us to keep from seeing the precipice.” Or as the French poet Paul Claudel says, speaking of the New Testament’s Book of Revelation: “What if, beneath all this revelry and group cheer, there were something seething under our feet?”

To the journalistic mind, all this gloom-and-doom apologetic is going to sound like the grim Calvinist sermons in The Scarlet Letter that poured forth from the tormented pulpit of the aptly named Rev. Mr. Arthur Dimmesdale. Schooled by the plot of this Urmyth of American Protestantism, the same journalistic mind will inevitably ask: What could be more life-denying than this constant dwelling on the dire straits of the human condition? And since Pascal owes so much to Calvinist doctrines of grace, is he not really the Catholic equivalent of the Rev. Mr. Dimmesdale?

No. Rather, the self-satisfied glee of the professional scoffer-the kind of opinion-monger who takes satisfaction in the fall of Jimmy Swaggart, Jim and Tammy Bakker, or any other easy target-comes from a different motivation than a resentment against a supposedly life-denying Calvinist or Jansenist Christianity. Underneath the smug cluck-clucking at the fall of a Christian aiming for sanctity, Pascal will detect the “ABC rule” working its effect:

Order. Men despise religion. They hate it and are afraid it may be true. The cure for this is first to show that religion is not contrary to reason, but worthy of reverence and respect. Next, make it attractive, make good men wish it were true, and then show that it is. Worthy of reverence because it really understands human nature. Attractive because it promises true good.

Of course, nothing could be further from Pascal’s intention than to sweep all religions under the universal rubric of human religiosity and see them merely as aspects of one global “search for meaning.” Enlightenment thinkers, who hoped to find a basis for international comity beyond the particularity of culture and religion, saw the modern pluriformity of religions as a problem. So too have postmodern thinkers, with their opposite privileging of the particular culture over against an allegedly “hegemonic” universal culture. Pascal, however, takes the multiplicity of religions to be a way of proving the truth of Christianity. Its very particularity, for Pascal, dramatically indicates its transcendental truth: “On the fact that the Christian religion is not unique: Far from being a reason for believing it not to be the true religion, it is on the contrary what proves it to be so.”

Perhaps no sentence that came from Pascal’s pen better encapsulates what makes him so modern as this apparent paradox. Nothing so beset, even fixated, the Enlightened mind of Pascal’s time and in the century to follow than what has become known as the “scandal of particularity.” If God’s will to save is universal, how can it matter what one believes in particular? What difference does it make what religion one belongs to or believes in, since-as one is constantly hearing on the lips of nearly every American-”it’s all the same God anyway”?

Second only to Dante, Pascal is Europe’s most politically incorrect writer. He dares to raise the unmentionable topic of truth in religion, and even called one of the sections of his Pensées “Nature Is Corrupt: On the Falseness of Other Religions.” In contrast to most reflection on the problem of world religions in today’s academy, Pascal sees the “problem” as in fact essential for the truth of the Christian message:

That God wanted to be hidden. If there were only one religion, God would be clearly manifest. If there were martyrs only in our religion, the same. God being therefore hidden, any religion which does not say that God is hidden is not true. And any religion which does not give us the reason why does not enlighten. Ours does all this. . . . If there were no obscurity man would not feel his corruption: if there were no light man could not hope for a cure. Thus it is not only right but useful that God should be partly concealed and partly revealed, since it is equally dangerous for man to know God without knowing his wretchedness as to know his own wretchedness without knowing God. “Truly God is hidden with you” (Isaiah 45:15).

But of course the key to finding this light is to search for it, and this once more brings us to the central difficulty: do we want the light of the truth? “Truth is so obscured nowadays and lies so well established that unless we love the truth we shall never recognize it.”

So there are good reasons for Christianity to stress not only its uniqueness (every religion is unique in some way) but its inherent truth. Nothing is more awkward in our ecumenical age than for a religion to stress its possession of the truth. But Pascal would say to Christians that unless it is confident that it possesses the truth, Christianity will not have the confidence that it can apply the only salve that can heal the real wounds of humanity. As the former Marxist Leszek Kolakowski put it in his defense of Pascal:

There are reasons why we need Christianity, but not just any kind of Christianity. We do not need a Christianity that makes political revolution, that rushes to cooperate with so-called sexual liberation, that approves our concupiscence or praises our violence. There are enough forces in the world to do all these things without the aid of Christianity. We need a Christianity that will help us to move beyond the immediate pressures of life, that gives us insight into the basic limits of the human condition and the capacity to accept them, a Christianity that teaches us the simple truth that there is not only a tomorrow but a day after tomorrow as well, and that the difference between success and failure is rarely distinguishable.

But even this formulation puts the matter too weakly (one detects in Kolakowski’s praise of Pascal the same weakness that has made him so diffident toward doctrinal Christianity throughout his published career). Far better perhaps is the judgment of T. S. Eliot, who to my mind has summed up Pascal’s achievement best of all; and, as befits Pascal himself, he has done so in one sentence of unsurpassed accuracy and concision: “I can think of no Christian writer, not Newman even, more to be commended than Pascal to those who doubt, but who have the mind to conceive, and the sensibility to feel, the disorder, the futility, the meaninglessness, the mystery of life and suffering, and who can only find peace through a satisfaction of the whole being.”

Pascal’s was a remarkable achievement, made even more remarkable by one-often overlooked-detail: he died at the age of thirty-nine.


Edward T. Oakes, S.J., teaches in the Religious Studies Department at Regis University in Denver, Colorado.

One comment

  1. Thanks a lot for the insightful article. I am a big fan of Pascal, precisely because he so well articulates religion and “science” which has so obscured man’s mind from the truth.



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