Sunday, July 29, 2012
Pascal's Thoughts on Religion
[ Originally written and posted on MySpace on June 24, 2007 ]
Blaise Pascal and Isaac Newton had more in common than being famous mathematicians and physicists who were active during the 17th century. Both turned to the study of religion, drifting away from science, Pascal having a decisive mystical experience in 1654. Newton gradually gave more attention to religious studies, being particularly interested in Old Testament prophecies. Only recently have Newton's private papers been released to the public. A few weeks ago, one was released which predicts the end of the world in 2060. Pascal's interest in prophecy was rather less newsworthy. He was most deeply involved in formulating a Christian apologetics which would answer the skeptics who were rising in influence even during his lifetime.
Dover Publications recently reprinted the W. F. Trotter translation of Pascal's Pensees, with an introduction by T. S. Eliot. The Trotter translation, without Eliot's remarks, is also available in the "Harvard Classics," most readily accessible online by going to Bartleby.com. Although inflation has had an effect on Dover's prices, I could not resist the impulse to buy a copy, which meant that -- adhering to my (sometimes violated) principle of reading any book which I buy -- I once again, after 45 years, read Pascal's thoughts on religion.
These thoughts, published posthumously in 1670, are a series of aphorisms. Numbers referred to in the following refer to the numbered sections in the Trotter translation.
Aphorism #233 is central to the Pensees. This presents Pascal's famous wager. According to the wager, the best bet is to believe in God. If one believes in a God who does not exist, one loses nothing. If, however, one chooses not to believe in God, and God does exist, then one loses everything.
The wager is central to Pascal's argument for the existence of God, but the body of Pascal's Christian apologetics arises from his examination of the prophecies and the miracles. The importance of fulfilled prophecies, by which Pascal refers to the prophecies in the Old Testament, is outlined in #692 and detailed in the following chapter. Unlike Newton, Pascal makes no attempt to calculate dates. Indeed, he does not look to the future at all. He is totally amillennial, again unlike Newton. He notes that Mohammad called himself a prophet, but that he offered no prophecies which came to pass.
Mohammad also offered no miracles. Christ did. His miracles are the subject of a chapter following the chapter on the prophecies.
Of all of Pascal's comments on the prophecies, I find most moving #735, on the book of Zechariah.
"The Jews, who have been called to subdue nations and kings, have been the slaves of sin; and the Christians, whose calling has been to be servants and subjects, are free children" (#670). Indeed, the Christians, today, who have been left in the world, a world of which the Devil is the regent, are like lost children, a prey to those who subdue nations and kings.
Pascal sees the danger to the faith in those classicists who honor the valor of the ancient Greeks. Only the valor of the Christian martyrs should move Christians, he notes in #481. This is an exclusivity quite contrary to to the trans-ecumenical spirit that seems to prevail today.
In #205-206, Pascal dwells on the terror inspired in him by the prospect of infinite, empty space. This is the aspect of Pascal in which 20th century commentators see a foreshadowing of existentialism. Again in #72, he refers to the devastating impact of our sense of infinity. Man is a wretched. lost being without God. Regarding reality, "It is an infinite sphere, the centre of which is everywhere, the circumference nowhere." (Jorge Luis Borges, in a fascinating essay known in English as "Pascal's Sphere," wrote his observations on this thought, but to dwell upon it here would be to digress too much.)
Pascal quite obviously loathes those thinkers who promote skepticism. He, accordingly, lambasts Montaigne (#18, #63-65) and even Descartes: "I cannot forgive Descartes. In all his philosophy he would have been quite willing to dispense with God. But he had to make him give a fillip to set the world in motion; beyond this, he has no further need of God" (#77). In his lengthy attack on skeptics in general (#194), there is an implicit suggestion that such skeptics are not uncommon and are unusually obdurate in their skepticism. What makes this observation interesting is that Pascal is writing in the middle of the 17th century. Perhaps the age of skepticism began sooner than is commonly believed.