by Douglas Groothuis

One of the great mathematical, philosophical, rhetorical, and apologetical geniuses of the 17th Century was a chronically ill Frenchman who died young and lost the major theological battle of his life with Roman Catholicism. Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) was affiliated with no major academic institutions, but was a lively contestant in the world of ideas. Influenced by the unsuccessful Jansenist movement, Pascal emphasized the human need for grace, divine sovereignty, and a life of serious Christian devotion. While that sounds somewhat Protestant—and it was closer to Protestant theology than his Jesuit opponents—Pascal was an ardent Catholic. Nevertheless, Blaise Pascal left us with an enduring legacy through his writings.1

Pascal died before finishing his proposed defense of Christianity, leaving us with a somewhat disorganized collection of notes that came to be known as Pensées, or thoughts.2 This project was inspired by an intense spiritual encounter with God, which he summarized as “Fire.”3 He left us with this programmatic statement, which sums up his aim:

Men despise religion. They hate it and are afraid it may be true. The cure for this is 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.4

Since Pascal did not finish his apologetics work, it remains for us to sift through the Pensées to discern his method and insights. I have done this at some length elsewhere,5 but suffice to note one of his most salient defenses of Christianity: the anthropological argument.

CHRISTIANITY AND THE HUMAN PARADOX

Pascal begins by eliciting our sense of wonder and discomfort concerning our own condition.

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, the glory and refuse of the universe!6

Pascal throws down the philosophical gauntlet by saying:

Man’s greatness and wretchedness are so evident that the true religion must necessarily teach us that there is in man some great principle of greatness and some great principle of wretchedness.7

In other words, any credible worldview must be able to account for the strangeness of the human situation; it must explain our glory and our misery, our greatness and our wretchedness.8 Technically, this is called philosophical or theological anthropology, but the question is not merely academic: it faces us every time we look into a mirror or into the eyes of another. Who are we? How do we make sense of ourselves and others? Is there any hope for us, or are we “hopelessly human”?9 The stakes are high: “Man is neither angel nor beast, and it is unfortunately the case that anyone attempting to act as an angel ends up as a beast.”10

Two leading non-Christian philosophies of his day were skepticism and Stoicism. Pascal shows that neither one can explain human nature adequately. Stoicism exalts human greatness (novel, prodigious, repository of truth and glory of the universe) at the expense of misery (monstrous, feeble as an earthworm, sink of doubt and error, refuse of the universe). Skepticism does the opposite, making men and women more miserable than they really are, thus ignoring greatness. Pascal taunts the merely human philosophies that cannot explain humanity.

If he exalts himself, I humble him.
If he humbles himself, I exalt him.
And I go on contradicting him
Until he understands
That he is a monster that passes all understanding.11

Christianity alone gives a reason for human greatness by its contention that humans bear the divine image (Genesis 1-2). Yet biblical revelation balances this out by realizing that humans abide “east of Eden,” since the fall into sin (Gen. 3; Rom. 3:14-26). Mortals are not merely bad, petty, and hateful; we are defaced versions of a wonderful original, which is not entirely without evidence today. As Pascal says, “All these examples of wretchedness prove [human] greatness. It is the wretchedness of a great lord, the wretchedness of a dispossessed king.”12

Know then, proud man, what a paradox you are to yourself. Be humble, impotent reason! Be silent, feeble nature! Learn that man infinitely transcends man, hear from your master your true condition, which is unknown to you. Listen to God.13

By “impotent reason,” he does not mean that argument plays no role in commending the Christian faith; rather, he affirms that mere, unaided human reason—or autonomous rationalism—cannot come to terms with the paradoxes, enigmas, and contradictions of human nature.

PASCAL’S CONTEMPORARY RELEVANCE

Today we find worldviews such as postmodernism that deny human greatness by claiming that humans create all their meaning through language and culture. There is no human nature, only various perspectives on the human, with no one view better than any other. Thus humans are but pathetic chameleons. The New Age or New Spirituality worldview errs on the other wise, by invoking metaphysical absoluteness for mere humans: we are all divine. Yet human finitude, ineptitude and immorality put the lie to that original lie (see Gen. 3:5-6).

Pascal’s apologetic achievements also include his famous wager, a powerful apologetic tool when deployed wisely.14 His reflections on the hiddenness of God and the uses of skepticism also bear apologetic fruit.15 Yet his account of the human condition is perhaps his paramount contribution. Let wise defenders of Christianity marshal it so that “deposed kings” might regain their rightful status in God’s world through faith in Jesus Christ (John 3:16-18).

Douglas Groothuis is Professor of Philosophy at Denver Seminary, where he heads the Philosophy of Religion Masters Degree. He is the author of ten books, including On Jesus and On Pascal.

NOTES

[1] For a brief summary of Pascal’s biography, see Douglas Groothuis, On Pascal (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2003), chapter two.

[2] While several editions are available, I recommend Blaise Pascal, Pensées, ed. A. Krailsheimer (New York: Penguin, 1995). This features an excellent introduction by the editor.

[3] See Groothuis, p. 12-14.

[4] Pascal, p. 4.

[5] Groothuis, Ibid.

[6] Pascal, p. 34

[7] Pascal, p. 46.

[8] I develop this argument in more detail in On Pascal, chapter 8.

[9] This was the name of a piece of music by the progressive rock group Kansas, taken from their album, “Point of Know Return” (1977).

[10] Pascal, p. 215.

[11] Pascal, p. 32.

[12] Pascal,  p. 29.

[13] Pascal, p. 35.

[1] See Groothuis, chapter nine.

[1] See Groothuis, chapter seven.