Four hundred years of Blaise Pascal, whose words ring today as true as ever vs. spiritual doubt, skepticism and atheism . . .
His birthday months away, it's time to review his famous bet . . .
This June 19 will mark the four hundredth anniversary of the birth of Blaise Pascal. In the not too distant past, say fifty years ago, it wouldn't have been inconceivable for the quatercentenary of a thinker of his stature to be commemorated widely, perhaps even marked by the United Nations. A Google search now, however, finds almost nothing to even register the event. (In fact, I could find only one.
Theologians, writers, poets and others have drawn sustenance from Pascal, particularly from his posthumously published Pensées, an inexhaustible repository of observations and reflections on literature, society, love, philosophy, psychology and religion. Over the intervening centuries, expressions extracted from that volume have appeared in the writings of authors from any number of nations, often unaware of their provenance. Novels and academic works bear titles gleaned from the volume.
A substantial number of the 923 thoughts address a topic that is as pressing now, indeed even more so, than when Pascal penned them — his campaign against spiritual doubt, skepticism and atheism. His compassionate tone toward unbelievers, coupled as it is with stern admonition to struggle in overcoming their disbelief, is striking even to a contemporary mind. One can only imagine how it affected readers of four centuries ago, only a few decades after the end of the French Wars of Religion.
Comments in that regard include the advice: "To begin by pitying unbelievers; they are wretched enough by their condition. We ought only to revile them where it is beneficial." Similarly, "To pity atheists who seek, for are they not unhappy enough?," but also "To inveigh against those who make a boast of it."
Atheism is an affliction, he says. Persistence in it, when offered a prescription for overcoming it, is willful perversity. Trumpeting it about for reasons of personal vanity is more wicked yet; attempting to spread the contagion is monstrous.
To reiterate the point, Pascal affirms, "I can have only compassion for those who sincerely bewail their doubt [about the immortality of the soul], who regard it [their doubt] as the greatest of misfortunes, and who, sparing no effort to escape it, make of this inquiry their principal and most serious occupation."
Yet again he asserts: "Surely then it is a great evil thus to be in doubt, but it is at least an indispensable duty to seek when we are in such doubt...."
I first read the Pensées in my youth when, though raised a Catholic, I was an atheist. The prescription offered in the excerpt below was taken in and nurtured for decades before I returned to the Church. In fact in many ways it was a map for the path back.
"You would like to attain faith, and do not know the way; you would like to cure yourself of unbelief, and ask the remedy for it....These are people who know the way which you would follow, and who are cured of an ill of which you would be cured. Follow the way by which they began; by acting as if they believed, taking holy water, having masses said, etc. Even this will naturally make you believe, and deaden your acuteness."
After my father died in 1996, I began to take my mother, who lived in another state and didn't drive, to church every other weekend. After a couple of years of doing that a thought occurred to me that contained a dynamic not unlike that of Pascal's famous wager (if a person believes in God and He doesn't exist, the loss is minimal, if at all, but if - or as - God does exist, that person bets on the prospect of infinite gains and of foregoing infinite losses). If I attended mass every second Sunday and missed it on the others, I was duplicitous in fraudulently assuring my mother I was a believer when I wasn't, at least not consistently; or if I stayed away from Mass when I did, doing so constituted an insincere effort to convince myself and others that I was still an atheist.
The way out of that impasse was by walking into St. Ita Church on the North Side of Chicago at the beginning of the century, the first time I had entered a church alone in almost thirty years, and by initially confirming my recommitment to the faith by dipping my fingers into a holy water stoup.
This year brings us the anniversary of the birth of one of humanity's, not only France's and Catholicism's, greatest benefactors, whose writings are as pertinent and probing, at times as unsettling (in a salutary manner) as when they were written. In relation to the spiritual and ethical malaise of an era beset with crippling doubt, contempt and self-contempt, torment and self-torment, even corrosive nihilism, but also with an insuppressible thirst for spiritual certainty and spiritual community, the world needs Pascal as much as it ever has.
One of the first major African novels, Senegalese Muslim author Cheikh Hamidou Kane's Ambiguous Adventure (1961), makes the point:
"No," his father replied. "...Man has never been so unhappy as at this moment when he is accumulating so much. Nowhere is he thought so little of as in the places where this accumulation is going on. That is why the history of the West seems to me to reveal the insufficiency of the guarantee that man offers to man. For man's welfare and happiness we must have the presence and the guarantee of God."
He paused, then added thoughtfully:
"Perhaps Pascal had caught a glimpse of this. Perhaps his piercing gaze had seen from afar what the methodological myopia of the scholars had not seen."