An unlikely sermon subject for Sunday

Mark Malvasi:

My uncle made book for a living. That is, he took money from those who wagered on sporting events, presidential elections, anything whereby they thought they could make a fast and easy dollar. I suppose then it was inevitable that, as a young man, I felt a certain affinity for the thought of Blaise Pascal (1623-1662). Pascal, of course, gambled on stakes much higher than my uncle ever imagined. At the same time, my uncle knew something that Pascal never understood or, in any event, never admitted. You can’t beat the house.

Pascal’s mind was among the finest of the seventeenth century. He was a prodigy, perhaps a genius, who, at fifteen, published a distinguished essay on conic sections. He invented the first calculating machine, which he called La Pascaline, and his experiments with the vacuums that nature abhors led to the creation of the barometer.   Pascal was also a first-rate mathematician whose fascination with, and success at, the gaming table enabled him to contribute to the development of probability theory. To test his hypotheses, he devised the roulette wheel.

On November 23, 1654, at the age of thirty-one, Pascal underwent an emotional conversion that stirred him to abandon his worldly metier and to become an apologist for Christianity. He is best remembered today as a religious thinker, which he was, and a mystic, which he was not.   Like the nineteenth-century Danish theologian Søren Kierkegaard, Pascal approached God with “fear and trembling.” A mystic seeks and expects union with God. Pascal, by contrast, despaired of ever finding Him. His conversion did not bring him clarity of vision. God remained distant and unfathomable; the will of God was inscrutable and His design for the cosmos mysterious. “For in fact,” Pascal asked, “what is man in nature?” He answered his question, writing:

A Nothing in comparison with the Infinite, an All in comparison with the Nothing, a mean between nothing and everything. Since he is infinitely removed from comprehending the extremes, the end of things and their beginning are hopelessly hidden from him in an impenetrable secret; he is equally incapable of seeing the Nothing from which he is made, and the Infinite in which he is swallowed up.

Yet, alone and without God, humanity was lost, frightened, and miserable in vast and desolate universe.

To calm his anxiety that God was, at best, remote and, at worst, illusory, Pascal conceived his famous wager. He urged skeptics, atheists, and free-thinkers to live as if they believed in God. Critics then and since have denounced what seemed to be Pascal’s sneering disdain in urging people to affirm that God was real and existence meaningful. It was disingenuous, if not cynical, of Pascal to play the odds and to bet on the reality of God and eternal life when he suspected both were false. The critique, although carefully aimed, misses the target. It is no small irony given Pascal’s attacks on the Jesuits that, like Ignatius Loyola, he rejected predestination, convinced that men and women, through their own efforts, could earn God’s saving grace. Good habits and sincere piety, even in the absence of real belief, thus became indispensable to salvation. “Custom is our nature,” Pascal declared. “He who is accustomed to the faith believes it, can no longer fear hell, and believes in nothing else.” As Augustine taught, the routine practice of faith might in time lead to genuine faith.

Difficulties arise not from Pascal’s intentions but from his premises. Pascal argued that a man, perhaps in utter desperation, must speculate that God exists. If he wins, he wins big and for all eternity. If he loses, he loses almost nothing, since he will be in no worse condition than before. A prudent man thus has no alternative but to roll the dice or to turn over the next card. He’s gambling with house money. But in reality, in history, those who have denied God have often won glory, wealth, and power; according to scripture, they have gained the whole world. Satan took Jesus to a mountain and there “showed him all the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them; and he said to him, ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.’” (Matthew, 4:8-9) It is equally mistaken that a man loses nothing by hazarding that God is real. A man who worships God may sacrifice all he has, all he is, and all he loves in the vindication of his faith.   Consider Job.

Pascal’s tragedy originated in his embrace of Jansenism, which introduced Calvinist doctrines and attitudes into the Catholic world of seventeenth-century France and Western Europe. The Jansenists had revived the Manichean dualism, which characterized humanity as divided between good and evil. For the Jansenists, every soul was a battleground, its fate determined by whichever conflicting impulse was strongest. The Jansenists insisted, therefore, that virtue must be imposed on rebellious and perverse human beings. Only an exacting and solemn authority could direct individuals toward rectitude and purity. The Jansenists also prescribed such discipline for the churches they controlled and the local governments in France over which they exercised some influence. The flesh must be compelled to yield to the spirit. It takes no great leap of historical imagination to see that the Jansenist admiration for order, management, restraint, bureaucracy, and surveillance could be made to attend the requirements of the totalitarian state. The Jansenists determined to administer the “greatness and misery of man,” (“grandeur et misère de l’homme”), which was the foremost theme of Pascal’s work, though compulsion.

Jansenism, asserted Friedrich Heer, endowed Pascal with “an enormous capacity for hatred and over-simplification.”  Stressing the enthusiasm and certainty that governed the residents of Port Royal, the spiritual and theological capital of the Jansenist movement, Heer doubtless exaggerates the charges against Pascal. He ignores not the complexity of Pascal’s thought, but the complexity of the man himself.   Pascal was both austere and worldly, both rational and intuitive. When he partitioned the mind into l’esprit géométrique and l’esprit de finesse, he was mapping the course that a single mind—his own—could take. Pascal may have felt the zeal of a convert, but he never seems to have acquired the conviction that he possessed absolute truth or a sure method by which to attain it. For Pascal, God alone provided the antidote to the twin maladies of doubt and insecurity.

To alleviate his own misgivings, Pascal set out to compose a systematic defense of Christianity. The Pensées contain the remnants of the greater work that he never lived to complete. If these fragments and aphorisms suggest the character of the volume that Pascal meant to write, then it seems the Pensées would have been less an apologia for Christianity than the spiritual autobiography of a thinker attempting to explain to his intellect how his faith was possible.

In the Pensées, Pascal intimated that skepticism may transcend reason, and the doubts that reason awakens, leading not to certainty but to affirmation. By acknowledging the limits of reason, the thoughtful man, he hoped, could accept the mystery of life without also yielding to its absurdity. “The last proceeding of reason,” he wrote, ”is to recognize that there is an infinity of things which are beyond it. It is but feeble if it does not see so far as to know this. But if natural things are beyond it, what will be said of supernatural?” Yet, perhaps at this moment of vital insight, Pascal exhibited some of the odium that Friedrich Heer had detected in his thought and character. Like many intensely passionate and astute natures, Pascal disdained the society in which he lived—a disdain that reinforced his displeasure with his fellow human beings and, at times, with life itself. Most men, he assumed, were intellectually lazy and emotionally tepid. Desultory, incurious, and stupid, they were incapable of profound thought, searching doubt, or vibrant faith. The majority preferred not to bother about any subject, whether intellectual or theological, that would jolt them out of their passivity, lassitude, and indifference. Pascal’s disillusioned analysis of human nature may, as Heer suggests, have issued from the Jansenist view that human beings are both helpless and degraded. He could not avoid exposing the rancor, the insincerity, the conceit, the dishonesty, the self-deception, the cowardice, and the pettiness that circumscribed and disfigured the lives of most ordinary men, and made him despise them.

For Pascal, as for Kierkegaard and other, later existentialist philosophers and theologians, unending dread may well have been the cost of existence. “The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me,” he proclaimed.  There is at times the echo of a terrible nihilism that reverberates though the otherwise silent spaces of Pascal’s infinite universe, as he gazed into the abyss. T. S. Eliot wrote that Pascal’s despair is “perfectly objective,” corresponding “exactly to the facts” and so “cannot be dismissed as mental disease.” In the end, Pascal concluded, the rational proof of God’s existence, such as Descartes had tried to construct with the ontological argument, was useless and unconvincing to those disinclined to believe. Essential questions about the meaning and purpose of human existence could never be resolved through the application of reason or logic. In fact, for Pascal, they could not be resolved at all. They could only be felt in all of their contradiction and paradox. The experience of such utter confusion and despair alone made faith possible and necessary, but offered no assurance that it would come.

Voltaire judged Pascal to be restless soul and a sick mind. Pascal agreed, confirming Voltaire’s assessment long before he had rendered it. During his final illness, Pascal often refused the care of his physician, saying: “Sickness is the natural state of Christians.” He believed that human beings had been created to suffer. Misery was the condition of life in this world. His was a hard doctrine.

But to what end did people suffer? What did their suffering accomplish? Did it exalt the spirit? Were they to suffer unto truth or, as was more likely, did they suffer because the flesh was evil and needed to be punished? Pascal had gambled for ultimate stakes. When he rolled the dice, it came up snake eyes, not once, not the last time, but every time. His tragedy, and potentially ours, is that he could discover no purpose in his encounters with creation, his fellow human beings, life itself. Philosophy, science, and reason offered no assurance of truth, and were of little comfort against anguish and hopelessness. Some could even use elaborate rational arguments to defy the will of God and to excuse sin, as had the Jesuits whom Pascal denounced in The Provincial Letters.

Love was equally vain and worthless. It prompted only deception and contempt for truth. Human beings are so flawed and imperfect that they are wretched and detestable. Loving themselves and desiring others to love them, they conceal their transgressions and deformities. Since no one is inviolate, no one deserves to be loved just as, were strict justice to prevail, no one deserves to be saved. Man, Pascal complained:

cannot prevent this object that he loves from being full of faults and wants. He wants to be great, and he sees himself as small. He wants to be happy, and he sees himself miserable. He wants to be perfect, and he sees himself full of imperfections. He wants to be the object of love and esteem among men, and he sees that his faults merit only their hatred and contempt. This embarrassment in which he finds himself produces in him the most unrighteous and criminal passion that can be imagined; for he conceives a mortal enmity against the truth which reproves him, and which convinces him of his faults. He would annihilate it, but, unable to destroy it in its essence, he destroys it as far as possible in his own knowledge and in that of others; that is to say, he devotes all his attention to hiding his faults both from others and from himself, and he cannot endure that others should point them out to him, or that they should see them.

All “disguise, falsehood, and hypocrisy,” men are ignorant, brazen, and delusional. Preferring lies to truth, they should not be angry at others for pointing out their shortcomings. “It is but right that they should know us for what we are,” Pascal insisted, “and should despise us.”

Elsewhere Pascal acclaimed the dignity of man. He was a reed, but “a thinking reed,” more noble than the insensible universe that would destroy him. But the damage had been done. In the centuries to come, the same revulsion for humanity that Pascal had articulated, the same regimentation and tyranny that the Jansenists had endorsed, transformed life on earth into a living hell. In the early twentieth-century, the Roman Catholic philosopher Gabriel Marcel came face to face with the tragedy of the human condition. Shattered by his experiences in the Great War, during which he had served with the French Red Cross identifying the dead and accounting for the missing, Marcel sought an alternative to grief and desolation.

He contended that in the modern world a person was no longer a person, but “an agglomeration of functions.” According to this functional definition, human beings were valued solely for the work they did and the goods they produced. Death became “objectively and functionally, the scrapping of what has ceased to be of use and must be written off as a total loss.” Such a vision of life deprived people of their spirituality and their faith, and robbed them of any joy that they might feel. Consumed by rancor, malice, and ingratitude, they suffered an “intolerable unease,” as they descended into the void that engulfed them.

Love was the answer. If people could overcome selfishness and egocentricity, if they could love one another, Marcel was confident that they could fulfill themselves as human beings. Such involvement with, and such fidelity to, others afforded a glimpse of the transcendent and was, in Marcel’s view, the most persuasive argument for the existence of God. Faith consoled and inspired the downtrodden, the persecuted, the oppressed, and the brokenhearted. It cultivated and enhanced all human relationships. For if people refused any longer to treat others merely as objects performing a function, if they came at last to recognize that all persons, however deficient, imperfect, errant, or sinful, mattered to God, then those persons were also more likely to matter to them.

I have come to the conclusion that each of us is capable of doing the right thing or the wrong thing at any one time. Your ratio of right decisions to wrong decisions shows the type of person you are, and whether or not your life will be successful (as in avoiding controllable bad things from happening to you).



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