Pascal’s Advice

The strongest reasons for God’s existence are acts of loving kindness

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Faith Philosophy

Recently Pope Francis issued an Apostolic Letter on the French thinker Blaise Pascal (1623–1662). It comes on the Fourth Centenary of his birth. Francis chose a haunting title: On the Sublimity and Misery of Man (Sublimitas et Miseria Hominis).

Most of Francis’s discussion centers on Pascal’s Pensées. Don’t expect to find this collection of brilliant insights at Costco. There’s a reading crisis today, especially for demanding classics. But Francis offers us more of a life review than a book review.

Pascal’s life has intriguing particulars. He designed Paris’s first public transport system and is reputed to have worked out all of Euclid’s geometry before reading Euclid. Francis, of course, is far more interested in the trajectory of Pascal’s life. The Holy Father appreciates Pascal as a “restless” thinker always in search of truth.

And why? Because truth, for Pascal, is in the service of love. Thus, Francis writes: “I would suggest that everyone who wishes to persevere in seeking truth—a never-ending task in this life—should listen to Blaise Pascal, a man of prodigious intelligence who insisted that apart from the aspiration to love, no truth is worthwhile.”

Arresting as this claim is, it needs clarification. Yes, truth is in the service of love. But to love is to work steadfastly for the good of the beloved. Surely, knowing the truth is central to the good of the beloved. In Thomistic terms, the good is being insofar as it presents itself to the will, and truth is being insofar as it presents itself to the intellect. We might, indeed, call truth and good “faces of being.”

Pope Francis writes, as well, of Pascal the mystic and his “night of fire.” So powerful was this experience that he noted it on a piece of paper entitled “FIRE” and put it in a coat lining found only after his death. Francis notes that in this testament, Pascal “repeated the appellation that the Lord gave himself in the presence of Moses—’the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob'”—and then added, “not of the philosophers and the sages…[the] God of Jesus Christ.”

Such an experience bespeaks the mystic’s certainty and joy. Yet, again, it seems to this poor philosopher that there is a need for clarification. St. Thomas Aquinas, who loved the God of Jesus, described that same God (and there is only one) as “pure act,” that is, actus purus. The God of Pascal and the God of Thomas are the same, however different an experience of that God might be.

What’s missing, and surprisingly so, in Francis’s Letter is a discussion of Pascal’s famous wager. However we differ among ourselves by our very nature we seek happiness. Pascal writes, “Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. Let us estimate these two chances. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is.” Simple enough?

And yet, as Pascal knew, many still seem bound by doubt. What then? For them he adds, “Learn of those who have been bound like you, and who now stake all their possessions…Follow the way by which they began; by acting as if they believed, taking the holy water, having masses said, etc. Even this will naturally make you believe, and deaden your acuteness.”

Pascal is a model for us in his desire to evangelize. And yet, in my view, both his famous wager and his “acting as if” advice for skeptics are mistakes, even if fascinating mistakes. Why? Because the strongest reasons for God’s existence, St. Thomas tells us, are acts of loving kindness.

As a philosopher I console myself that teaching philosophy, and even game theory, can be such an act. But for that to be so, what’s needed is the grace of a vocation rather than academic display. Now if, gentle reader, I were a mystic…Ah, but I’m not!

 

Jim Hanink is an independent scholar, albeit more independent than scholarly!

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