Tuesday 14 August 2012

Reading Pascal's Pensees


It was only two years ago I bought the Penguin translation of Pascal's Pensees in a secondhand bookshop in Cheltenham.

I was already a Christian and had been so for a more than a year; but it was reading Pascal that make Christianity 'click into place' for me.

If I had read Pascal before I became a Christian, I probably would not have understood enough about it to understand that Pascal proves that Christianity is the only religion which answers to Man's need.


Pascal is talking to modern man - which is in itself a miracle, considering he wrote nearly four centuries ago. He describes the human condition, the predicament - and he shows how Christianity 'fits' the need.

He also clarifies that only Christianity fits the need - this was, for me, perhaps the most amazing insight. All the other religions of the world, and secularism, fail to meet the need even in theory.

This is a remarkable thing. Christianity seems to atheists like wish fulfilment, insofar as atheists know enough about Christianity to know what it is, and this is substantially accurate.


But it raises the question of why other religions are not like wish fulfilment - if religions are merely opiates of the masses, or mechanisms of social control, or projected fantasies of happiness etc - then why is it only Christianity that actually does the job of offering a believer so much - indeed everything!

As Pascal clarifies, Christianity is what we would want to be true; and the main question is whether it is true - if it is true, and you understand what Christianity is, then you would be irrational to reject it.


But why do other religions offer so little and that little either grossly inadequate to human need or utterly irrelevant?

Why is it that - even in their ideal outcomes - no other religion gives what humans want?

Why is it that the the paradise or ideal outcome for all other religions is either horrible, obviously inadequate or meaningless? 


Is it because other religions are honest and only Christianity is 'pie in the sky'?

Or is it because only Christianity is true and real, and other religions are not aimed at truth, are deceptions - not least in deceiving humans that they want, or ought to want, the paltry 'rewards' which other religions offer.


Pascal seems to me just about the most intelligent person I have encountered (or can appreciate) - qualitatively far above my own mind in terms of his ability to analyse and comprehend.

And having acknowledged this - it was astonishing to me to find that Pascal focused on prophecy and miracles as the major evidence for the truth of Christianity specifically - and I found myself convinced, and recognising that of course these were necessary in order that Christianity be specifically (uniquely) true.


But what I got from Pascal as from nobody else, was this sense of him having sketched-out the ultimate nature of reality for Man - almost as if he sketched it in the air - and then showing the essence of Christianity and how it answered to the state of Man - so that either Christianity had been cobbled-together specifically to fit the exact needs of Man; or else it was true.

Then the shock of recognising that it was true.

And that this truth becomes obvious to those all who seek it, but remains hidden from those who do not seek it; and that it was necessary that this be so...


The universe clicked-into place.



Bedarz Iliaci said...

"But why do other religions offer so little and that little either grossly inadequate to human need or utterly irrelevant?"

What could be a basis for such a sweeping assertion?

Religion is a lived experience and that can not be fully judged from the outside.

Brian said...

Any thoughts on Rene Girard?

Bruce Charlton said...

@BI - "What could be a basis for such a sweeping assertion?"

Are you seeking to be a Christian? Have you read Pascal?

If I could summarize Pascal in a blog posting, there would be no need to read him.

@B - re: Rene Girard - I know nothing about him beyond a vague awareness of the name.

Gyan said...

But how could Pascal know all what other religions offered or did not offer?

Bruce Charlton said...

@Gyan - I am saying that Pascal definitively settled this question for me.

Of open religions (to which one might realistically convert) there aren't really many - a diverse group of paganisms (+/- variable added elements of revelation), Christianity and Islam.

Wurmbrand said...

It would be interesting to imagine a conversation between Pascal and Thoreau. I wonder if they could find much common ground. Thoreau was taken with the Eastern thought that was available to him and not impressed by the Christianity he had encountered in 19th-century new England. Pascal probably knew a little about Eastern thought, but it would not have been a live alternative, I suppose, in his time and place.

All persons, of any time and any place, who attain eternal life do so on account of the person and work of Christ, but it is only by the work of the Holy Spirit through the word of the Gospel that this truth becomes convincing to anyone. It seems that for some adherents of Eastern ways, it is hard indeed to realize this.

A. M. said...


Bruce Charlton said...

FHL SAID: "Chesterton once said that of all the religions in the world, the only two that could compete for being valid were Christianity and Hinduism. I feel like I agree, but I'm not sure why I feel Hinduism has a valid claim (I don't think it is a valid religion, but I think, at first glance, there is something about it that stands out to where I can understand how someone would think it was). I think it comes its ancientness, that when compared to the vapid new-age ideas of today, it seems very old and archaic, and thus more real. Also, from legitimate claims of miracles, some of which seem too real to be denied.

"But it does not have a happy ending. Its answers can only lead to despair, which why the highest ideal is pure detachment from everything. And indeed, Hindus don't try to convert anyone. I'm not even sure they believe conversions to Hinduism are possible.

"Of Pascal's wager, I'm very glad I ran into your blog before I read it a couple of years ago, otherwise I may have just passed over it quickly, not taking in the deeper message. It's odd how often "Pascal's Wager" is brought up, by both Christians and atheists, and completely misunderstood. Atheists "refuting" Pascal, attempting to show how he forgets about other religions, drawing punnett squares and flow charts and whatnot, humph! What nonsense! None of them have read it, this I know."

(FHL - your comment was scrambled, this is the unscambled version).

Bruce Charlton said...

@Dale - Thoreau was not seeking, but had made the fatal move to seek salvation within himself and his own will.

He was trying to make his pride, his autonomy, invincible to whatever the world could throw at it.

Or, perhaps, he was seeking to remain a seeker - which amounts to the same thing.

So, I think Thoreau would be unmoved by Pascal.

Bruce Charlton said...

wrt: Pascal and 'comparative religion'.

Pascal's arguments can be taken up and applied to any religion/ mythology you happen to encounter, but that he did not know-of.

Ask about the 'ending' - where does it all lead to? - and is this 'good news'?.

Bruce Charlton said...

As a 'thought experiment, suppose for a moment that 'all religions are true' for their own adherents.

In such a scenario demons (hostile to humans) would certainly want to channel as many souls as possible *away* from Christianity, and into other religions which offered so much less (infinitely less).

FHL said...

"Pascal's arguments can be taken up and applied to any religion/ mythology you happen to encounter, but that he did not know-of."

So true! So true times a million!

I've seen a video where a Christian girl asks Richard Dawkins "what if you're wrong about Christianity?" to which Dawkins replies "What if you're wrong about lord Jubu-Jubu of the mountain?"

I have a feeling Pascal might have replied to Dawkins: "Well... what if you're wrong about Jubu-Jubu?"

The reason Pascal is so upset is because people aren't even taking the religious questions seriously! People playing card games the day before their execution...

FHL said...

"As a 'thought experiment, suppose for a moment that 'all religions are true' for their own adherents."

From St. John of Damascus:

"For you say that you have three rivers flowing in paradise—one of water, one of wine, and one of milk. If your forerunner the camel is outside of paradise, it is obvious that she has dried up from hunger and thirst, or that others have the benefit of her milk—and so your prophet is boasting idly of having conversed with God, because God did not reveal to him the mystery of the camel. But if she is in paradise, she is drinking water still, and you for lack of water will dry up in the midst of the paradise of delight. And if, there being no water, because the camel will have drunk it all up, you thirst for wine from the river of wine that is flowing by, you will become intoxicated from drinking pure wine and collapse under the influence of the strong drink and fall asleep. Then, suffering from a heavy head after sleeping and being sick from the wine, you will miss the pleasures of paradise. How, then, did it not enter into the mind of your prophet that this might happen to you in the paradise of delight? He never had any idea of what the camel is leading to now, yet you did not even ask him, when he held forth to you with his dreams on the subject of the three rivers. We plainly assure you that this wonderful camel of yours has preceded you into the souls of asses, where you, too, like beasts are destined to go. And there is the exterior darkness and everlasting punishment, roaring fire, sleepless worms, and hellish demons."


Sylvie D. Rousseau said...

"And that this truth becomes obvious to those all who seek it, but remains hidden from those who do not seek it; and that it was necessary that this be so..."

I have quotes and explanations in mind for the first two propositions, but could you please expand a little or give a quote or reference for the necessity of the hiding of truth from those who do not seek it. Is it related to personal responsibility in responding to the truth?

Bruce Charlton said...

@SDR - I'm saying that Pascal made this clear to me; but that does not mean I can explain it to you!

The simplified answer has to do with free will. I saw from Pascal that Man is intrinsically a creature with free will. That is the kind of creature we are.

The reality of God must, therefore, be clear to those who seek God, but hidden from those who do not seek Him - otherwise God could not be chosen.

Simon said...

Pascal's only, and, possibly, most fatal mistake was to fail to anticipate that we may stoop as low as to completely deny the existence of God.

Can hardly blame him for that...

FHL said...


"Pascal's only, and, possibly, most fatal mistake was to fail to anticipate that we may stoop as low as to completely deny the existence of God."

How is that? I think Pascal was mainly addressing skeptics and unbelievers in his book.

It seems to me that Pascal's arguments work whether or not you believe in God, because they treat all viewpoints relating to religion and eternity as consequential, including the atheist/skeptical view. You cannot rightfully say, when dealing with Pascal, that "oh, it's not that I can't decide on which religion, it's that I can't decide whether or not there's a god." He'd just take the atheist view in the same manner as he would a Hindu view- it's still a religious decision either way. You can't remain neutral.

FHL said...


This may not convince you either (if you even needed convincing, or just clarification). You should certainly read the Pensees if you have not already, but to add a bit to Dr. Charlton's note, Pascal does mention why it is that those who do not seek God should not find Him (with those who seek God necessarily finding Him taken for granted, as according to scriptures):

280. The knowledge of God is very far from the love of Him.

288. Instead of complaining that God had hidden Himself, you will give Him thanks for not having revealed so much of Himself; and you will also give Him thanks for not having revealed Himself to haughty sages, unworthy to know so holy a God.

289. Jesus Christ came to blind those who saw clearly, and to give sight to the blind; to heal the sick, and leave the healthy to die; to call to repentance, and to justify sinners, and to leave the righteous in their sins; to fill the needy, and leave the rich empty.

So it seems that Pascal believes (as do I) that the main purpose of believing in God is to love Him; it does not matter if you know who God is, even the demons know who God is. But it certainly does matter that you love Him, and so, why would He choose to reveal Himself to anyone who did not seek Him with his whole heart? What good would it do? (a cheesy example... but God is like a superhero who saves you when you are in trouble, but does not hang around for the photo-op, so only you know what He did, and your relationship with Him may be special and with depth that is not found in public relationships.)

270. (Quoted from St. Augustine?) Reason would never submit, if it did not judge that there are some occasions on which it ought to submit. It is then right for it to submit, when it judges that it ought to submit.

This also shows that people wouldn't even believe in God even had they witnessed Him... and they did! Two-thousand years ago! And many still did not believe. Only those who are looking for something find the thing they look for. You cannot employ an echo-cardiogram to diagnose a love-sick broken heart.