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Pascal for Today | Peter Kreeft | From the Preface to Christianity
for Modern Pagans: Pascal's Pensées (Edited, Outlined, and Explained)
Pascal is the first postmedieval apologist. He is "for today" because
he speaks to modern pagans, not to medieval Christians. 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
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
*Note on "sexist" language: Those who insist on
changing the centuries-old convention by which "he" is shorthand for
"he or she" are invited to pay their dues to the newly neutered
grammar god and add a "she" to each "he" in the following sentence,
then read it aloud. If he (Or she) does not have a tin ear for language, he (or
she) will change his (or her) mind about his (or her) linguistic
"improvement", I (or we) think.
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Peter Kreeft, Ph.D., is a professor
of philosophy at Boston College who uses that dialog format in a series
published by Ignatius Press, called "Socrates Meets..." So far,
Dr. Kreeft has written Philosophy
101 by Socrates, Socrates
Meets Marx, Socrates
Meets Machiavelli and Socrates
Dr. Kreeft has written more than forty books, including C.S.
Lewis for the Third Millennium, Fundamentals
of the Faith, Catholic
to Virtue, Three
Approaches to Abortion, and The
Philosophy of Tolkien. His most recent Ignatius Press books include
Can Understand the Bible, The
God Who Loves You, and Because God Is Real:
Sixteen Questions, One Answer. (A complete list of Ignatius Press books
by Kreeft can be viewed on his IgnatiusInsight.com
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