Introduction to Apologetics, Part 5: Blaise Pascal
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. – T.S. Eliot
If you do not know me (or could not guess from the main title of this blog), then you may not know of my sincere affection for the thoughts of Blaise Pascal (1623-1662). Previously on this blog, I wrote this short bio:
Blaise Pascal was a scientist, mathematician, philosopher, and theologian. In science, he essentially invented the hydraulic press, syringes, vacuums, and the barometer. In mathematics, he made advances in probability theory, game theory, geometry, and foundational presuppositions to economics. In philosophy and theology, Pascal had one work published after his death – Pensees (French for ‘thoughts’). Pascal lived an anguishing and brief life of intense physical pain (likely stomach cancer and brain lesions/damage) and joy. He died at age 39.
Adding to this, later in life Pascal was a Jansenist. Jansenism was a small branch of Catholicism highly influenced by St. Augustine (354-430). Following Augustine, Jansenism has a high view of God and highlights God’s sovereignty in salvation. Augustine was critical and seminal in the Protestant Reformation and, as such, much of Pascal’s thoughts appear Protestant and Calvinistic.
Pascal was substantially ahead of his time in science, mathematics, and philosophy (and may still be). Pascal also transcends many different categories. He is esteemed by both (some) Catholics and Protestants. He is balanced on the role of reason and faith. In the wake of the Thirty Years War, a European civil war over religion, which most historians point to as the death of religion in Europe, Pascal was vehemently defending Christianity. He was a sharp critic of Rene Descartes and the foolishness of the Enlightenment Project, three hundred years before it became vogue to bash on modernism and the Enlightenment. Pascal was both incredibly thoughtful and emotionally passionate in his Christianity.
Pascal’s apologetic is brilliant. His argumentation does not necessarily follow the paradigm of Premise 1, Premise 2, Premise 3, Premise 4, and therefore Conclusion. Pascal appeals to individual experience, community experience, reason, and the Scriptures. While the others of his day were extolling the absolute infallibility and perfection of pure reason, Pascal pointed out its weaknesses and inability to provide the necessary answers to being and experience.
Pascal starts by showing the boundaries of what reason alone can and cannot do:
173. If we submit everything to reason our religion will be left with nothing mysterious or supernatural. If we offend the principles of reason our religion will be absurd and ridiculous.
183. Two excesses: to exclude reason, to admit nothing but reason.
188. Reason’s last step is the recognition that there are an infinite number of things which are beyond it. It is merely feeble in it does not go as far as to realize that. If natural things are beyond it, what are we to say about supernatural things?
Pascal continues to challenge scientific rationalism (the Enlightenment Project), mainly by pointing out weaknesses in Descartes:
On Descartes (and by corollary the Enlightenment Project)
78. Descartes: useless and uncertain
553. Write against those who probe science to deeply. Descartes.
Pascal then examines many opposites, paradoxes, and antinomies: Faith and reason. Greatness and wretchedness. Meaninglessness and Meaning. Heart and Mind. Certainty and uncertainty. Boredom and happiness. Diversion and rest. He concludes that the true religion must account for all of these extremes. He also puts forth an epistemology:
110. We know the truth not only through our reason but also through our heart. It is through the latter we know first principles, and reason, which has nothing to do with it, tries in vain to refute them. The sceptics have no other object than that, and they work at it to no purpose. We know that we are not dreaming, but, however unable we may be to prove it rationally, our inability proves nothing but the weakness of our reason, and not the uncertainty of our knowledge, as they maintain. For knowledge of first principles, like space, time, motion, number, is as solid as any derived through reason, and it is on such knowledge coming from the heart and instinct, that reason has to depend and base all its argument. The heart feels that there are three spatial dimensions and that there is an infinite series of numbers, and reason goes on to demonstrate that there are no two square numbers of which one is double the other. Principles are felt, propositions are proved, and both with certainty through different means… Our inability must therefore serve only to humble reason, which would like to be the judge of everything, but not to confute our certainty. As if reason were the only way we could learn!
185. Faith certainly tells us what the senses do not, but not the contrary of what they see; it is above, not against them.
Pascal shows his reader the wretchedness of his estate, the weakness of his reason, and shows him the true happiness of Christ and the Gospel against that dark backdrop. Pascal transcends the different apologetic categories we have listed thus far. He was far before his time and embodies the essence of the classic Richard Pratt quote, “Because the deck of life is always shifting balance can be nothing more than momentary synchronicity.”
In this writers opinion, if the modern era had read Pascal more widely the arrogance of the Enlightenment Project and modernism may have never occurred and Europe might still be substantially Christian today. Pascal’s non-linear methodology also suits a third way between the arrogance of modernism and uncertainty of post-modernism. Tolle lege!