Book Write-Up: Pascal’s Pensees

I read Blaise Pascal’s Pensees over the past month.  Specifically, I read the Penguin Classics edition, for which A.J. Krailsheimer wrote the introduction and translated.  Blaise Pascal was a seventeenth century mathematician.  His Pensees contain his reflections, primarily about religion, but occasionally about other subjects, such as the difference between deductive and intuitive thought.

Here are some cursory notes:

A.  Pascal is known for his Wager.  In his Wager, he asks people to consider believing in God.  If they believe in God and follow God’s ways and God turns out to exist, then they gain happiness in this life and eternal bliss in the hereafter.  If they believe in God and follow God’s ways and God does not exist, then at least they have happiness in this life.  If they do not believe in God and God exists, then they will go to hell.  The point of this Wager is to shake people out of their complacency about spiritual things so that they take belief in God seriously.  Pascal believes that indifference about eternal and spiritual matters is abominable.

A criticism of Pascal’s Wager is that it does not factor other religions into the equation.  It assumes that there are only two choices on which people can make a wager: belief in the Christian God, and non-belief in the Christian God.  But there are other religious options, too, and does that not muddy up the choice, a bit?  What if one chooses the wrong God in selecting the Christian God?

What is interesting about the Pensees is that Pascal actually spends pages defending his belief that Christianity is superior to and truer than other religions.  That brings me to the next item.

B.  What are some reasons to believe in Christianity, according to Pascal?  One reason is the fulfillment of biblical prophecy.  Pascal believes that the Gentiles’ acceptance of the biblical God is a fulfillment of biblical prophecy.  He also thinks that the continued survival of the Jewish people—-and their cursed state after they rejected Jesus—-attests to the the truth of Christianity.  (I am not endorsing this view but simply relaying what he says.)  Second, Pascal maintains that miracles demonstrate the truth of Christianity.  We will discuss this more in the following item.  Third, Pascal holds that the Old Testament appears to prefigure or set the stage for a more spiritual kind of religion, which is what Christianity offers; for instance, the Old Testament’s criticism of sacrifices prefigures Christ’s abolition of the sacrificial system.  Fourth, Pascal believes that Christianity, better than any other religion, acknowledges what he observes about the human condition: that it is fallen.  It has a sense of some glory from which it fell, but it is in a moral and spiritual mire and needs God to rescue it.  (At the same time, Pascal argues that rabbinic Judaism has a tradition of original sin.)

Pascal is rather critical of the cosmological and teleological arguments for the existence of God.  He finds them to be too abstract and disconnected from human experience.  He also thinks that reason has its limitations because it can be used to support all sorts of conclusions, even radical skepticism.  More importantly, he believes that such arguments detract from Christ, whom he sees as the mediator between God and humanity, the revelation of God, and the redeemer.  What he says on page 121 would make Karl Barth proud:

“Not only do we only know God through Jesus Christ, but we only know ourselves through Jesus Christ; we only know life and death through Jesus Christ.  Apart from Jesus Christ we cannot know the meaning of our life or of our death, of God or of ourselves.  Thus without Scripture, whose only object is Christ, we know nothing, and can see nothing but obscurity and confusion in the nature of God and in nature itself.”

Pascal does not hold that there is absolute proof for the truth of Christianity, but rather that there is enough light to guide those who sincerely desire to know the truth, and enough darkness to blind those who are not open to the truth.  (This is the source for the title of Laura’s blog, Enough Light.)

C.  The Pensees has a chapter about miracles.  Essentially, Pascal addresses the question of whether miracles can serve to demonstrate the truth of Christianity, when the Bible appears to acknowledge that false prophets can perform miracles, too (see, for example, Exodus 7:22; Deuteronomy 13:1-3; Mark 13:22; II Thessalonians 2:9).  Pascal responds to this question in a variety of ways.  First, he questions whether those other miracles truly are miracles.  Second, he states that God and the truth trump those false wonders.  Pharaoh’s magicians could turn their staffs into serpents, just like Moses’ brother Aaron did, but Aaron’ serpent ate their serpents (Exodus 7:11-12).  Pascal also deems Christ’s foretelling of the false prophets’ lying wonders to be significant, in that it demonstrates Christ’s superiority over them.

Pascal engages a variety of positions about miracles.  Some believe that doctrine trumps miracles.  Others contend that miracles authenticate doctrines.  Pascal argues against both positions, while also embracing them, in certain respects.  Pascal notes that Paul did not come with strength but came proclaiming Christ and him crucified, as if his message was sufficient (I Corinthians 2:2).  At the same time, Pascal believes that miracles attest to the truth of Christianity, and even continue to demonstrate the truth of Roman Catholicism, over all heresies.

D.  Pascal is critical of the passions.  He states on one occasion that cleansing oneself of passion may help one to have a better spiritual perception.  Pascal also criticizes the human tendency to become bored and to seek diversion.  In a particularly poignant passage, Pascal talks about how humans love to be flattered.  I thought to myself how much I benefit from the slogan “What other people think about me is none of my business,” but Pascal appears to think that humans should be strong enough to hear people’s honest opinions about them, rather than swimming in a sea of phony flattery.

E.  Pascal is ambivalent about the Catholic church.  On the one hand, he himself is a Catholic, and he believes that the church upholds the truth and even participates in God’s act of forgiving sins, which is how he interprets its authority to bind and to loose (Matthew 16:18-19; 18:18-19).  Pascal could be quite snarky in his comments on Martin Luther and even the Calvinists (though he shared common ground with Calvinism).  On the other hand, Pascal laments that popes have often been authoritarian rather than being the servants that Christ commanded his disciples to be (Matthew 23:11).  Pascal is also livid against the Jesuits, who are opponents of the Jansenists, a sect with which he sympathizes, and he laments when the church authorities side with the Jesuits.  Pascal can be rather wry in his analysis of the Jesuits, though.  For example, on page 328, he states: “They enjoy enough credit to get a chapel built or preach a jubilee, but not to secure appointments or bishoprics or governorships.”

There is a lot more that he says.  More than once, I put a “?” beside a passage, as it was elliptical.  Sometimes, what he said became clearer after some thought; at other times, not so much.



About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. I study the History of Biblical Interpretation at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio, as part of its Ph.D. program. I have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting.
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