Pascal for Today


Pascal is the first postmedieval apologist. He is "for today" because he speaks to modern pagans, not to medieval Christians.

Blaise Pascal

Most Christian apologetics today is still written from a medieval mind-set in one sense:  as if we still lived in a Christian culture, a Christian civilization, a society that reinforced the Gospel.  No.  The honeymoon is over.  The Middle Ages are over.  The news has not yet sunk in fully in many quarters.

It has sunk in to Pascal.  He is three centuries ahead of his time.  He addresses his apologetic to modern pagans, sophisticated skeptics, comfortable members of the new secular intelligentsia.  He is the first to realize the new dechristianized, desacramentalized world and to address it.  He belongs to us.  This book is an attempt to reclaim him.

I thought of titling this book "A Saint for All Skeptics" — but Pascal was no saint, and he wrote for nonskeptics as well as for skeptics.  But I know no pre-twentieth-century book except the Bible that shoots Christian arrows farther into modern pagan hearts than the Pensées.  I have taught "Great Books" classes for twenty years, and every year my students sit silent, even awed, at Pascal more than at any other of the forty great thinkers we cover throughout the history of Western philosophy and theology.

Why then is he not better known?  Why was I taught every major philosopher except Pascal in studying the history of philosophy in four colleges and universities?  "Late have I loved thee", Pascal;  why did I have to discover you so late, as a maverick?

Because that's what Pascal is:  a maverick philosopher in today's Establishment;  a sage rather than a scholar; a human being rather than a "thinker";  not just smart but wise.  That's what philosophy is supposed to be "the love of wisdom" — but we've come a long way since Socrates, alas.

There are also religious reasons for ignoring Pascal.  For one thing, he's too Protestant for Catholics and too Catholic for Protestants.  Yet he's not somewhere in the muddled middle.

Protestants who read the whole of the Pensées cannot help noticing that Pascal was totally, uncompromisingly, unapologetically and enthusiastically Catholic.  On everything that separates Protestants from Catholics (Church, saints, sacraments, Pope, and so forth) he took the Catholic side in unquestioning assent and obedience to the Church, even to the extent of submitting to the Church when, with doubtful fairness, she condemned his Jansenist friends' writings.

Catholics see that code word, "Jansenism", and see red.  Isn't Jansenism a heresy, and wasn't Pascal a Jansenist?  Yes, Jansenism is a heresy, but Pascal was not a Jansenist.

Those who dismiss Pascal with the label of "Jansenist" are like those who call all orthodox Christians "fundamentalists":  the label reveals more about the labeler than about the labeled.  (It usually reveals these three things:  that he does not seek truth, facts or accuracy;  that he rejects orthodox, supernaturalistic Christianity;  and that he thinks of himself as a "progressive", which today means a decadent.)

What are the facts?  What was Jansenism, and what was Pascal?

Jansenism, as defined and condemned by the Church, was not simply the emphasis, in Bishop Jansenius' Augustinus, on otherworldliness or detachment.  That's simply Christianity, if Christianity is defined as what Christ actually taught.

Nor was Jansenism simply the fanatical, wholehearted love of God and sanctity.  That's what Moses taught (Dt 6:) and Jesus reaffirmed as "the whole law and the prophets" (Mt 22:37).

Nor was Jansenism simply the emphasis on the seriousness of sin and divine judgment;  that, too, is simply Christ's emphasis.

Yet these are things nearly everyone means when dismissing "Jansenism", rather than the highly technical theological errors about moral maximalism and theological Calvinism that the Church condemned as heretical.  "Jansenism" in the popular sense (otherworldliness, "fanaticism", and divine "judgmentalism") is the single most hated teaching in the Western world today.  The world will do anything to get rid of the consciousness of sin, for the smell of its sins stinks to high Heaven and makes Sodom and Gomorrah look like a church service.

There is enormous social and psychological pressure, inside the Church as well as outside her, to ignore, deny or minimize sin, as Molina and the Jesuits did in Pascal's day.  (You can read Pascal's brilliant satire on them in his Provincial Letters.  But beware:  though they are beautifully rhetorical, they are also very technical.)  It seems that the most important question in the world, "What must I do to be saved?" (Acts 16:30), is never asked;  and if it is, the answer is not to be born again but just born;  not otherworldly but this-worldly; not repentant but respectable; not self-denying but self-affirming (see Mt 16:24). Yet even if every voice in the world should preach the gospel of spiritual auto-eroticism, there are two voices that tell us we are sinners in need of a Savior:  the voice of conscience within and the voice of God without:  in Scripture, in all the prophets and saints and above all in the teaching of Jesus and his living Church.  And these two voices, not society's, are the only two we can never escape, in this world or the next.  Better to make peace with them even if it means war with the whole world, rather than vice versa.  That is not Jansenism, it is simply Christianity.

Catholics who read this may suspect that Pascal was really a kind of Protestant evangelical spy.  This is two-thirds true.  He was an "evangelical", like Jesus, and he was a spy, like Kierkegaard, whose mission was "to smuggle Christianity back into Christendom".  But he was not a Protestant.

His uncompromising Catholicism seems at first to burn bridges rather than build them between Catholics and Protestants.  But he does build bridges between some Catholics and some Protestants and burn the bridges between another kind.  Both very liberal and very conservative Protestants are deeply threatened by Catholicism.  For the liberals, "the only good Catholic is a bad Catholic", as Fr.  Ruder gibes.  And for many fundamentalists.  Catholics are pagans, not even Christians:

Church-worshipers, Pope-worshipers, Mary-worshipers, saint-worshipers, superstition-worshipers, sacrament-worshipers, idol-worshipers, and works-worshipers.  But Pascal builds bridges to evangelical Protestants by showing them how evangelical a Catholic mind can be, and how deeply Christocentric.  (See point 28.) What Pascal does in the Pensées, without consciously trying, is the same thing C. S. Lewis did in Mere Christianity:  to show us the infinite importance of the common core beneath the denominational differences.

I have taught "Great Books" classes for twenty years, and every year my students sit silent, even awed, at Pascal more than at any other of the forty great thinkers we cover throughout the history of Western philosophy and theology.

Honest reunion between Catholics and Protestants — which is clearly close to Christ's own heart:  see John 17:21 and 1 Corinthians 1:10-13 — can come about only in one way:  without compromise;  in strength, not in weakness.  The fact that Pascal, like Augustine, seems both too Catholic and too Protestant points the way to this reunion.  Its secret is simple:  the Christian orchestra will play in harmony (not necessarily unison) if and only if all the instrumentalists have the "purity of heart" to "will one thing" (in Kierkegaard's perfect phrase), have one absolute will to follow the will of their common conductor, Christ.  The absolute center of Catholicism is Christ.  The absolute center of Protestantism is Christ.  The Catholic and Protestant circles can join only from the center outward.  The two wheels can be aligned only on a common hub.

And that common hub — Christ — is precisely the single point to which Pascal drives us through all his points in the Pensées.  Every pensée, every word in every pensée, is a cobblestone in the road leading to the same Christ, a sign pointing to the same home.  The whole structure of Pascal's argument is Christocentric.  I shall now let the whole cat out of the bag and state Pascal's ultimate conclusion right here at the beginning:

Not only do we only know God through Jesus Christ, but we only know ourselves through Jesus Christ;  we only know life and death through Jesus Christ.  Apart from Jesus Christ we cannot know the meaning of our life or our death, of God, or of ourselves. (no. 417)
The only other two Christian writers who may be more powerful ecumenical bridges than Pascal are Augustine and C. S. Lewis.  And both of them shared the same simple secret of the centrality of Christ.  Pascal always thought of himself as an Augustinian.  When he became ill, he gave away all his books, a very large library for his day, and kept only two to be his sole nourishment until he died, two he could not part with:  the Bible and the Confessions.  "A wise choice", comments Muggeridge.  A wise comment.




Peter Kreeft. "Pascal for Today." from the preface to Christianity for Modern Pagans: Pascal's Pensées (Edited, Outlined, and Explained) (San Francisco:  Ignatius Press, 1993).

This article is reprinted with permission from Ignatius Press.


Peter Kreeft, Ph.D., is a professor of philosophy at Boston College. He is an alumnus of Calvin College (AB 1959) and Fordham University (MA 1961, Ph.D., 1965). He taught at Villanova University from 1962-1965, and has been at Boston College since 1965.

He is the author of numerous books (over forty and counting) including:  The Snakebite Letters, The Philosophy of Jesus, The Journey:  A Spiritual Roadmap for Modern Pilgrims, Prayer:  The Great Conversation:  Straight Answers to Tough Questions About Prayer, How to Win the Culture War:  A Christian Battle Plan for a Society in Crisis, Love Is Stronger Than Death, Philosophy 101 by Socrates:  An Introduction to Philosophy Via Plato's Apology, A Pocket Guide to the Meaning of Life, and Before I Go:  Letters to Our Children About What Really Matters. Peter Kreeft in on the Advisory Board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

Copyright © 2013 Peter Kreeft

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