Blaise’s Best Bet, Part 4: Pascal for Today

Blaise’s Best Bet, Part 4: Pascal for Today

For the last several weeks, I’ve been reflecting on French thinker Blaise Pascal (1623–1662). I’ve discussed his lifehis achievements in science and mathematics, and his conversion to Christianity and work as an apologist. Though Pascal lived centuries ago, I believe his writings on theology and apologetics remain important for Christians of the twenty-first century.

While serving as more of book outline than a complete book, Pensées (Pascal’s unfinished apologetic work) is so profound that it remains a perennial bestseller. Two uniquely Pascalian themes introduced in Pensées seem especially relevant today: the Christian solution to humanity’s paradoxical nature and the importance of intuition in human thinking.

On the human enigma and Christ

As an experimental scientist, Pascal had a deep appreciation for the need to provide an acceptable explanatory theory. He believed that for a religion or philosophy to be worthy of belief it must account for the meaningful realities we encounter in life. One of those central realities is the enigma of man. Blaise wrote of humanity (including himself):

What sort of freak then is man! How novel, how monstrous, how chaotic, how paradoxical, how prodigious! Judge of all things, feeble earthworm, repository of truth, sink of doubt and error, glory and refuse of the universe!1

According to Pascal, humans are a strange and freakish mixture of “greatness and wretchedness.” Our greatness is exhibited in our unique ability as a reflective thinker to recognize our wretchedness. Christian philosopher Thomas V. Morris explains:

One of the greatest mysteries is in us. How is the naked ape capable of grasping the mathematical structure of matter? How can one species produce both unspeakable wickedness and nearly inexplicable goodness?

How can we be responsible for the most disgusting squalor and for the most breathtaking beauty? How can grand aspirations and self-destructive impulses, kindness and cruelty, be interwoven in one life? The human enigma cries out for explanation. Pascal believed that only the tenets of the Christian faith can adequately account for both the greatness and wretchedness of humanity. And he was convinced that this in itself is an important piece of evidence that Christianity embraces truth.2

Just how does Christianity explain our paradoxical nature? The Christian theistic worldview asserts that humanity’s greatness is a direct result of the imago Dei (the image of God). As a creature made in the image and likeness of God, humans reflect the glory of their Maker. Though certainly finite in our expression, people nevertheless exhibit certain godlike characteristics.

The wretchedness, on the other hand, can be traced to the first human beings’ fall into sin (Genesis 3). Original sin is the biblical doctrine that the entire human race has inherited guilt and moral corruption from Adam (Psalms 51:5; 58:3; Romans 5:12; 18–19; 1 Corinthians 15:22).

Pascal believed that the ultimate solution to humanity’s contradictory predicament rests in finding redemption through the person of Jesus Christ. In his own words:

Knowing God without knowing our own wretchedness makes for pride. Knowing our own wretchedness without knowing God makes for despair. Knowing Jesus Christ strikes the balance because he shows us both God and our own wretchedness.3

For Pascal, it is in the redemptive encounter with Jesus Christ that man finds both himself and God. Therefore Christianity not only explains the puzzle of human nature, but also provides the solution for our existential estrangement from God and from ourselves. Again from Pensées:

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 our death, of God or of ourselves.4

On the “reasons of the heart”

Scholars disagree about how Pascal’s views concerning the relationship of faith and reason should be classified. Some have even called Pascal a fideist (negatively defined as someone believing that faith has no rational foundation).5

Many would say that Pascal’s position, though certainly not systematic, is more complicated than simple fideism. He strongly asserted that “religion is not contrary to reason,” and he even argued that there are various evidences for the truth of the Christian faith.

He lists such evidences as biblical prophecy, miracles (especially Christ’s resurrection), the continued existence of the Jews, the Christian church’s historical witness in the world, and, as discussed above, Christianity’s unique explanatory power. However, Pascal did believe that reason and scientific investigation have limits, and that reason does stand in need of the illumination of faith and divine revelation.

For Pascal, the traditional proofs (e. g., cosmological and teleological arguments) for God are religiously inadequate (unlike geometry, they are not deductively certain). He viewed them as too complicated and remote for most people, and though they may provide knowledge of God, they do not provide knowledge of Christ. Pascal strongly asserted that “the knowledge of God is very far from the love of Him.” Thus the proofs, at best, have limited value. They may convince the “mind,” but not the “heart.”6

Pascal’s metaphor of the heart is quite provocative. He wrote, “The heart has reasons that reason does not know” and “God is perceived by the heart, not by the reason.” For Pascal, the heart refers to an “instinctive, immediate, and unreasoned apprehension of truth.”7 Pascal believed that the heart has an intuitive and immediate knowledge of first principles (including God).

Rather than being a center of mere emotion, the heart instead conveys a sense of intuition (suggesting immediacy, spontaneity, and directness). Frederick Copleston defines Pascal’s understanding of the heart concisely: “In general, ‘the heart’ is a kind of intellectual instinct, rooted in the inmost nature of the soul.”8

It appears that for Pascal, the mind and the heart both play an important role in a person coming to faith. The heart provides the basic intuition in the process of forming our most basic beliefs, whereas the mind provides the complimentary discursive reasoning. (Goodbye Descartes: The End of Logic and the Search for a New Cosmology of the Mind by Keith Devlin even suggests that the latest scientific research actually tends to support Pascal’s view of the importance of intuition in human thinking.9)

A unique Christian thinker

It is easy to appreciate the precision and clarity of Pascal’s brilliant and creative mind when observing its application in both science and the Christian faith. His genius clearly worked at both his scientific and his religious reflections. For Pascal, ultimately, the Christian faith’s best argument is how it ties faith and reason together. Here’s how he aptly described the balance: “If we submit everything to reason, our religion will have no mysterious and supernatural element. If we offend the principles of reason, our religion will be absurd and ridiculous.”

Over the next two weeks, I’ll wrap up this series with a discussion of Pascal’s famous wager.

  1. Blaise Pascal, Pensées, trans. A. J. Krailsheimer (London: Penguin Books, 1995), 34.
  2. Thomas V. Morris, Making Sense of It All (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1992), 129.
  3. Pensées, 57.
  4. Ibid., 121.
  5. Fideism can also be defined in more positive terms as a view that recognizes the limits of human reason and emphasizes the importance of faith. If Pascal was a fideist, his fideism was quite moderate and balanced. See William J. Wainwright,Philosophy of Religion (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1988), 132–36.
  6. Wainwright, 132–33.
  7. Frederick Copleston, A History of Philosophy, vol. 4 (New York: Image Books-Doubleday, 1994), 165.
  8. Copleston, 165–66.
  9. Keith Devlin, Goodbye Descartes (New York: Wiley & Sons, 1997), 183.