The Relevancy of Pascal for Modern Religious Thought

by Dallas M. Roark, Ph.D.

President Berquist, Member of the Faculty, students, and Others who are enrolled here, and last and least, the  Chairman of the chairman of the chapel committee. I want very much to count this a great honor to speak  in the chapel of Midwestern, but I have difficulty in doing so. When I heard that Dr. McCarthy was chairman of the committee I  facetiously  said that I ought to come and speak in chapel sometime and all that he had to say was: “when?”

When I was in school a good chapel speaker was supposed to have at least one good joke, and often it was a religious type of joke.  Mine is quite religious by the standards of the day for it involves a Jewish family who came from the old country and settled in the wild west.  They did not like the west and the wife and mother went east to find a house, and the husband and his daughter stayed to sell the house and move.  They sold all of it for 500 dollars and a horse buggy. On the way on the plains a bandit rode up and robbed them.  As he was getting away, the old man lamented that the bandit had taken their horse and buggy and the 500 dollars.  The daughter, Rebecca, told him that the bandit did not get the money because she had hidden it in her mouth, where upon  the old man replies,  Ah, Rebecca mine daughter, too bad your mother was not here for we could have saved the horse and buggy.”

You are sermonized to sleep too often.  Instead, I would like to share with you some impressions from one of the more fascinating thinkers in the history of thought. Blaise Pascal was one of those rare souls whose genius touches several areas, but very important for our days the often conflicting realms of science and religion.

Born June 19, 1923 at Clermont, France of parents of the intellectual elite of his community, his scientific genius natured quite early so that
--at the age of 11 he had worked out independently 32 of the theorems of the first book of Euclid
--at the age of 11 he wrote a treatise on the cessation of sounds in vibrating bodies when touched.
--at the age of 16 he won the respect of Paris mathematicians with a Treatise on Conics.
--at l9 he invented an arithmetic calculator that could add, subtract, multiple and divide.
--Moreover, the barometer, the discovery of the law of pressure known as Pascal‘s law are credited to his name.
--He invented the omnibus which eventually worked into a transportation system for Paris that was inaugurated in 1662.
--Emile Caillet also attributes the invention of the wrist watch to Pascal.

As a  literary man  Pascal made a mark in French literature. The Provincial Letters—an attack upon the Jesuits—were leading best sellers for more than 2 centuries.  The Pensees—a collection of notes for a proposed  defense of the Christian Faith was never finished in form, but it too has a great place in religious literature as well as literature in general.

I would like to share some impressions from the Pensees. The Pensees ponder a  problem that is strangely familiar to us today.  Why was it that secular and anti-Christian attitudes were settling upon the country? The answer is still similar. Men were accepting  naively the ability of reason to solve any and all problems for them particularly religious problems.

When this occurs, how do  you jolt  people  out of their complacency?  As a precursor, if not the father, of existentialism, Pascal  attempted to make men see the irrationality of their actions, the finitude of man, the techniques of diversion that helped men avoid thinking about problems seriously—diversion is that which men  do to forget the meaning of life.

One of the more famous Pensees in which Pascal does some of  this is number 233. The Wager means that man must bet upon  his existence and its ultimate outcome. Indifference is out--it is a vote for no. The Wager concerns whether God is, or God is not. Reason can decide nothing there. But one must bet. The stakes are enormous...infinite life.

One may outline the wager as follows:
If I bet God is: and he is--everything to gain
                          and he is not--then l have lost nothing.
If l bet God is not: and he is--everything to lose.
                                  and he is not--nothing lost.
Therefore,  if the odds were a billion to one, with such high stakes, wager that God is.

Pascal carries on a dialogue, following the wager, with an imaginary objector who says, in essence, "I cannot believe, what, then, would you have me do?"
The answer of Pascal is that if you want to believe, follow in the steps of those who have believed before you: “Follow the way by “which they began: by acting as if they believed .... "
In saying this, Pascal anticipates the theory expounded by the Danish physiologist, Lange, and Wm. James in saying that the outward expression of any emotion leads to the emotion associated with it. This is not auto-suggestion, but it merely means that in following those who have faith one opens up in himself a channel, an attitude for receiving God's grace. This is sound psychology for it is at the bottom of our total educational program in the Church. We encourage people to attend church, to read the Bible .... so that they will open themselves up for God's invasion of their lives.

When l was first introduced to Pascal by Richard Popkin, philosophy professor  who was then at the University of Iowa.  Popkin criticized the wager in saying  that it was the Catholic possibility that one was betting on. To be safe one should place  side bets on the several denominations. I think that implies a misunderstanding concerning the differences in denominations--they are not as great as many imply, but it also overlooks the religious upbringing of Blaise. His father, Etienne directed the religious education of his child. He did not direct him toward the scholastic theology of his day, but favored instead the reading of the Bible. Coupled with this was the fact that Pascal belonged to the Jensenists, a type of Calvinistic Catholicism. Pascal is very directly oriented toward the Biblical standard of Christianity. This makes much more sense when we remember that his works were placed on the lndex of Prohibited Books for over 300 years.

Denominational differences are not the problem that a related problem is. If any side bets  should be made perhaps they may be placed on Buddhism, Islam, or something else.

Pascal dealt with this problem for it follows onto the other. He attempted to set up criteria for discussing the ‘true religion.’ lf God does exist how is one to make a distinction between the claims of the great religions of the world. In dialogue with them , it is useless to quote my good KJV to a Buddhist and lament the fact that outside the Church there is no salvation. The Muslim, and others will not accent the authority of these Scriptures.

Is there any common ground? Can we begin anywhere for this discussion? Can we adopt anything like the scientific method to help us? It is my feeling that Pascal‘s propositions on the true religion are fundamental for any beginning point. Two of the propositions are validated by common experience. The third proposition or the solution requires faith and an appeal to historical claims.

l. The true religion must teach the hiddenness of God. (584)

"Every religion which does not affirm that God is hidden, is not true; and every religion which does not give the reason of it, is not instructive."  It is  a fundamental conclusion of experience that  God is hidden. lf God exists, we cannot see him either through the senses, or by means of any technical apparatus now available.  If God exists, why is He hidden? If God is hidden, how may we come to know him?

What does this say with reference to other religions?  We may reject all forms of idolatry, regardless of how sophisticated  it may become, because if God is hidden any representation is meaningless. To say that the idol merely reminds one of God is meaningless also if God is hidden.

We may reject all forms of pantheism whether in Hinduism, Christian science, or religious idealism, because pantheism  imposes an identification of nature and man with God in a way that is contrary to our experience and means of coming to know things.

When we turn to world religions such as Buddhism and Confucianism and when we distinguish the views of the founders and how the religions evolved, a startling fact is evident. Gautama and Confucius did not desire to discuss the question of God, and for all practical purposes may he called practical atheists.

The evolution of religion that did take place in their names violated the principle of the hiddenness of God.  Gods proliferated to the thousands plus the fact that the founders were apotheosized centuries later. This would have been rejected by both if one reasons consistently on the line of their thinking and teaching.

2. The true religion must explain the misery of man

Pascal wrote, "That a religion may be true, it must have knowledge of our nature. It ought to know its greatness and littleness, and the reason of both.”  (433  ) ln Pensees  487  he wrote, "the true religion teaches our duties; our weaknesses, our pride, and lust; and the remedies, humility and mortification

Various options may he proposed for explaining man‘s ills. Lack of education, selfishness, or it may he desire as the Buddhist have taught,  the desire to get rid of desire.   Evil may not really be as the Hindus speak of it. It may he explained as wrongful thinking as the Christian Scientists do.

For Pascal there was something; more basic. Man is estranged from man . He is a contradiction in himself, and if the hidden God exists, man is certainly alienated from him. What is in common about the ills of man and the misery he is in? ls it an oversimplification to speak of it as sin? Can man's sin he relates to his religious practices that keep him in ignorance, in famine, in selfishness, in ignorance of God, in superstition, in attempting to justify and rationalize his actions, in attempting to redeem himself, and can it be related to the fact that if God is, he is hidden?
Pascal would affirm this.

3. The third proposition is that the True Religion must teach how man can know God who is hidden, and give the remedy for his alienation and misery.

How can man know the hidden God unless this One comes in self-revelation? On this Pascal wrote, "The true religion, then, must teach us to worship Him only, and to love Him only. But we find ourselves unable to worship what we know not, and to love any other object but ourselves, the religion which instructs us in these duties must instruct us also of this inability, and teach us also the remedies for it." (P.489)

ln Pensee 546,  Pascal wrote, "We know God only by Jesus Christ. Without this mediator all communion with God is taken away; through Jesus Christ we know God...ln Him then, and through Him, we know God. Apart from Him, and without the Scripture...without a necessary mediator promised and come, we cannot absolutely prove God, nor teach right doctrine and right morality. But through Jesus Christ, and in Jesus Christ, we prove God and teach morality and doctrine. Jesus Christ is then the true God of men. But we know at the same time our wretchedness; for God is none other than the Savior of our  wretchedness.  So we can only know God well by knowing our iniquities. Therefore those who have known God, without knowing their wretchedness, have not glorified Him, but have glorified themselves."

The basic idea concerns the role of  mediating. In this Jesus Christ is unique. In contrast to other founders of world religions, Jesus Christ stands as God incarnate, the Word made flesh. He is not merely a man with religious insight into the moral problems of the day--a fact true of most religious  founders-- but He is God become man to redeem man. 

Christian Faith, therefore, is not a system of self-redemption no matter how sophisticated one might try to make it, but the good news of a Divine Event--the Incarnation--in which a Divine Act is proclaimed. Without the Mediator none of this would be possible.

Soren Kierkegaard has a story related to the profundity of  knowing God.  It is called  the King and the Commoner.

Once upon a time there was a king who fell deeply in love with a common maiden. As Soren Kierkegaard tells the story, the very nature of love is that it seeks equality and unity. It is only in equality and unity that an understanding can be achieved. For a king to love a commoner there are problems. In his love he desires nothing less than the happiness of the beloved. How can he achieve this sense of equality? The story develops three alternatives to the kingly problem.

The first is that of marrying his beloved and ignoring the differences between them. This might appear a good move on the surface, but the king has thought long about the nature of their love and desires above all her happiness. Would she be able to forget the differences of the past that after all she was a commoner and he was the king? There might come a time in which their love would be blighted by the memories of the past, and the glory of their love be spoiled. There might be a time in which the king would awake from sleep to find his beloved weeping over the inequality of their love. This is not a viable alternative for the king.

The second alternative is one that might be suggested by a counselor: the king could display all of his power, majesty, greatness and prestige to his beloved and she could fall at his feet accepting him as her king. Such a suggestion would mean that the king would be doing the maiden a kind deed for which she should be grateful. But such an alternative deprives love of its basic aim to unite equals.

This second alternative amounts to treason against his beloved. For such a thoughtless suggestion the king might take off the head of such an adviser. Kierkegaard's story relates that it would be harder for the king to be her benefactor than to lose her.

A third alternative must be sought and it is only implied in the story: the king can abdicate and become a commoner and be the equal of his beloved.

At this point, the story is re­told with its application to God who is the lover seeking to have a loving relation with His created image: mankind. How can God express his love when love requires equality?

The first alternative is like the king. God can accept man, fill his life with joy, and man might be inclined to accept this relationship unchanged. But there is the memory of the past rebellion, self-deception on man's part, and there might come the time when man is haunted by his past, and love would be spoiled.

The second alternative is that God could display openly His majesty, holiness, greatness and power. Man could fall to his knees and have a worshipful relationship with God. But God desires not His own glorification, but His beloved. This alternative is even more complicated than the king's problem. There is a statement about God from the past that "no man could see God and live." "Who grasps this contradiction of sorrow: not to reveal oneself is the death of love, to reveal oneself is the death of the beloved! " (p.23) Thus if God chose this alternative man would not survive in His holy presence. But if love is not expressed to the beloved, love is lost. Consequently, God cannot pursue this alternative for the safety of the beloved -- man.

Another alternative must be sought.
The story indicates a third alternative: God can abdicate, descend, become a commoner, an equal of man. The humblest one is a servant. This is how love can find equality. If God is love, He doesn't send a substitute, He comes Himself. This is what happened in Bethlehem--God came down! There He grows up and walks beside the Sea of Galilee - God with us! Since this is not play-acting, God must suffer all things, endure all things, make experience of all things. He must suffer hunger in the desert, He must thirst in the time of His agony, He must be forsaken in death, absolutely like the humblest - behold the man." (p.25)

This story shows the importance of God's act for our understanding of God. We come to know God because God has come down. God comes in love because love assumes the initiative. God comes in a way that is protective for man's life. But also, God comes in redemption and help for His people. Some of this truth is expressed in the Gospel of John that the Word was with God and the Word was God. Then the striking phrase comes: "The Word became flesh and dwelt among us." (1: 18)

There are many reasons people celebrate Christmas, but the most profound one is that God's love is expressed in an event that is common to man, but which carries the uncom­mon fact of God's love expressed in or being incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth. (Quotations from Soren Kierkegaard, Philosophical Fragments, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1958.)

Any consideration of the relation of Christianity to world religions may well take Pascal into consideration. The advantages of Pascal‘s position are that one begins with the empirical information and then move from there to the claims of the particular religion.

This approach suggested by Pascal has relevance to the two kinds of people "one can call reasonable; those who serve God with all their hearts because they know Him, and those who seek Him with all their heart because they do not know him.”

For those who so not fall into either of these two categories Pascal continues by saying, "But as for those who live without knowing Him and without seeking Him, they judge themselves so little worthy of their own care, that they are not worthy of the care of others; and it needs all the charity of the religion which they despise, not to despise them even to the point of leaving them to their folly. But because this religion obliges us always to regard them, so long as they are in this life, as capable of the grace which can enlighten them, and to believe that they may, in a little time, he more replenished with faith than we are,... we must do for them what we would they should do for us if we were in their place, and call upon them to have pity upon themselves, and to take some steps in the endeavor to find light.” (194)

The continuing appeal of Pascal is evidenced in his being a precursor of the existential movement hut one who retained a fidelity to Scripture. His modernity is also seen in his dealing with problems that are increasingly pushing themselves into the lap of the modern church. Let me conclude by quoting where Pascal declares that "it is natural for the mind to believe, and for the will to love; so that, for want of true objects, they must attach themselves to false.”(p.81)


This address was given at Midwestern Seminary in the 1970's