Blaise Pascal: Gambling on God

Blaise Pascal (1623-62) had proven his genius as a mathematician and physicist, inventing the first computer and wristwatch, advancing our understanding of air density, vacuums, hydraulics, calculus, and probability, and designing the first public transit system in Paris.[1] But his true genius was in insisting that there’s more to reality than reason reveals. After a definitive experience of grace, he was thoroughly converted to the faith and began writing in its defense, most notably the Pensées, in which he suggests that, since we cannot know through reason whether God exists, we should bet on belief. This Wager is not based on dumb luck but on the reason deferentially listening to God, through whom we can understand the true condition of man and the solution found in the gospel as attested by prophecies, miracles, and martyrdom. All of this, taken together, makes Pascal’s Wager undeniably reasonable.

Pascal’s mother passed away when he was three. So he and his sisters were raised and homeschooled by their father. “The Pascals were good conventional Catholics . . . keeping their daily life and the faith in separate compartments.”[2] In 1646, that all began to change, when they were introduced to the ideas of Saint-Cyran, who adhered to Jansenism, a “strict Augustinianism”[3] suspected by some Catholics at the time of being too Calvinistic. It taught that we cannot come to God except through Christ, and cannot come to Christ without the aid of grace. The Spirit must enable a man unto salvation; yet he may not. As Pascal would later write, “we can understand nothing of God’s works unless we accept the principle that he wished to blind some and enlighten others” (232). Though man could never earn or deserve this grace of enlightenment, he can “remove some of the chief obstacles to grace and thus create in himself a disposition more favourable to its reception.”[4] And it seems this is precisely what was happening in Pascal’s family through Saint-Cyran’s teaching. It was a spiritual spark that “made them enthusiastic Christians, regarding worldly preoccupations as irrelevant, and even inimical, to salvation.”[5] The message was so compelling that, once Pascal’s father died, in 1651, his younger sister, Jacqueline, decided to pursue the life of a Jansenist nun. Quite the opposite, losing the support of his father and sister, and having been thrust into international fame by his scientific genius, Pascal found himself succumbing precisely to the worldly life of “pride, selfishness and materialism” that was at odds with what he had learned from Jansenism.[6] It was not until November 23, 1654, that Pascal experienced the grace of God for himself and was completely converted to Christ.

“From about half past ten in the evening until half past midnight. Fire.”[7] This was not indigestion. Neither was it the exhilaration of an enlightened mind. It was the work of God Himself. The “God of Jesus Christ” was giving him “certainty, certainty, heartfelt, joy, peace.” He was aware of nothing else those two hours but God and his great grace, revealed in the Gospels and now known in his heart. “Joy, joy, joy, tears of joy,” he exclaimed! And he confessed: “I have cut myself off from him, shunned him, denied him, crucified him.” He now resolved “sweet and total renunciation. Total submission to Jesus Christ.” It was discovered at Pascal’s death that these words memorializing the night of his conversion were sewn into his clothes and carried with him wherever he would go.

Now, as a fervent believer, Pascal would turn his thinking toward writing Christian apologetics. He wrote a series of letters criticizing the Jesuits and defending the Jansenists known together as the Provincial Letters. But his most important work he never finished. The notes for his planned apologetic exist today as the Pensées, a collection of sentences, paragraphs and fragments of thought. Profound in themselves, they merely hint at the masterpiece that might have been. In fact, says Dulles, “The fragments are more impressive than the finished masterpieces of others.”[8] What is more, “his style almost miraculously combines passion and clarity.”[9] This would have humbled Pascal given that he praises Christ’s teachings because “such clarity together with such simplicity is wonderful” (309). The goal of both Jesus and Paul (as he saw it) was not so much to teach as to humble their readers (298), and he set out to do the same.

“Unlike previous apologists, Pascal makes no effort to give metaphysical arguments for the existence of God.”[10] In his view, it is not that the mind needs to be convinced of the truth of Christianity but that the heart needs to be convinced of its need for Christ. Reason has its place, but also its limits. “The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing” (422). There are things we just know—intuitively—“without having to use reason.”[11] The question is whether we will let our reason blind us from the realities of the heart.

The most famous section of the Pensées is known as The Wager,[12] which argues that, “if there is a God, he is infinitely beyond our comprehension.” We cannot understand him by dividing him into systems and parts as in science. And there is no vantage point from which we can see all of God all at once. He is infinitely greater than anything we can grasp. “We are therefore incapable of knowing either what he is or whether he is,” because we could never give adequate rational grounds to prove a being infinitely beyond our rational capacities. Does God exist? “Reason cannot decide this question.” We must toss a coin. Heads, God exists. Tails, he does not. Everyone must make a choice. If you call heads and it turns out God exists, “you win everything, if you lose you lose nothing.” When the odds are even and the prize is infinite, it is a reasonable bet to make.

Of course, there have been many objectors to this Wager. Recently, the atheist apologist, Richard Dawkins, has weighed in on the matter:

“I can decide to go to church and I can decide to recite the Nicene Creed, and I can decide to swear on a stack of bibles that I believe every word inside them. But none of that can make me actually believe it if I don’t. Pascal’s wager could only ever be an argument for feigning belief in God. And the God that you claim to believe in had better not be of the omniscient kind or he’d see through the deception.”[13]

Pascal anticipated this objection, saying, “If you are unable to believe it is because of your passions, since reason impels you to believe and yet you cannot.” His advice is not to bother with proofs, for the evidence is sufficient, but to focus rather on moral discipline, which is the real impediment to faith. Furthermore, the way to accomplish this is by, in a sense, “feigning belief,” not out of deception but out of desire. Imitating the life of those who do believe will reform the unbeliever’s life and prepare his heart to truly believe. “Now what harm will come to you from choosing this course? You will be faithful, honest, humble, grateful, full of good works, a sincere, true friend.” You will have traded in your harmful pleasures for healthy ones.

Dawkins figures that, “Pascal was probably joking when he promoted his wager.”[14] But The Wager does not exist in some theoretical vacuum, without any support by reason or experience. Pascal, one of the great geniuses in the history of France, posited it within the framework of many astute observations about human nature and proofs of Christianity. The Wager comes as a consequence of his belief that reason and logic can only go so far. There comes a time when we all must make an educated guess, intuiting the unknown from the known. The evidence is there for those who “take the trouble to seek the truth” (158). God puts faith into their hearts “often using proof as an instrument.” (7). “Those to whom God has given religious faith by moving their hearts are very fortunate, and feel quite legitimately convinced, but to those who do not have it we can only give such faith through reasoning, until God gives it by moving their heart, without which faith is only human and useless for salvation” (110).

Just as in science there is no subject so simple that we could ever know or understand all its component parts and their purposes, so the complexities of man are beyond the capacities of man to understand. To know our “true condition . . . [we must] listen to God” (131). “Only I can make you understand what you are,” he tells us, but, “I do not demand of you blind faith” (149). It is not by doing away with reason but by submitting it to God “that we can really know ourselves” (131) and see “clearly, by convincing proofs” the nature and authority of God (149). But we must be willing to submit to the Lord’s tutelage, for “there is enough light for those who desire only to see, and enough darkness for those of a contrary disposition” (149).

What if we wager on Yahweh only to discover Baal is god? This is another one of Dawkins’ more interesting objections to The Wager: “Mightn’t Pascal have been better off wagering on no god at all rather than on the wrong god? Indeed doesn’t the sheer number of potential gods and goddesses on whom one might bet vitiate Pascal’s whole logic?”[15] On the surface, it may seem so. But Pascal would not be worried. For him, a true religion should require love of God, understand man’s sinfulness, and offer a solution—all which Christianity does (214). And when it comes to the supernatural, “any man can do what Mahomet did. For he performed no miracles and was not foretold. No man can do what Christ did” (321). So true Christianity is not based on blind faith, but necessarily employs reason (167), for “if we submit everything to reason our religion will be left with nothing mysterious or supernatural. If we offend the principles of reason our religion will be absurd and ridiculous” (173). But we must guard against the extremes of not using reason at all or using reason alone (183) since faith is not contradictory but complementary to reason (185).

“All men seek happiness. There are no exceptions” (148). Yet, our lives are riddled by “inconstancy, boredom, anxiety” (24). Our only consolation is to bury our unhappiness in diversions. Countless pleasures and preoccupations keep us from the introspection that inevitably leads to depression (36). “If man were happy, the less he were diverted the happier he would be” (132). But we are so uncomfortable in the present that we are always looking ahead “planning to be happy” and never arriving at what we seek (47). So, to wish a person rest out of kindness is to completely misunderstand human nature, for to rest is to wrestle with our restlessness, to have the uneasy luxury of contemplating our emptiness (136). Happily, there is a remedy to our condition. This “infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself” (148).

So, once again, The Wager becomes important. If one was to bet that God exists and it turned out to be false, nothing would have been lost but an unhappy life. Nevertheless, Dawkins disagrees, saying, “that you will lead a better, fuller life if you bet on his not existing, than if you bet on his existing and therefore squander your precious time on worshipping him, sacrificing to him, fighting and dying for him, etc.”[1] To this Pascal retorts, “no one is so happy as a true Christian, or so reasonable, virtuous, and lovable” (357).

Knowing this [see posts 1-4], Pascal confesses, “I should therefore like to arouse in man the desire to find truth, to be ready, free from passion, to follow it wherever he may find it, realizing how far his knowledge is clouded by passions” (119). The truth is found in the gospel as buttressed by prophecy, miracles, and martyrs. First, Pascal’s conception of the gospel hinges on the contrast between Adam and Christ, the sinful nature and grace. Through Adam man suffered alienation from God; through Christ man has been restored to fellowship (205). Therefore, “it is not only impossible but useless to know God without Christ” (191). Second, the fulfillment of the prophecies concerning Christ makes this gospel convincing (335). “If a single man had written a book foretelling the time and manner of Jesus’s coming and Jesus had come in conformity with these prophecies, this would carry infinite weight. But there is much more here” (332). “No one could say it was the effect of chance” (326). Third, miracles serve to validate the gospel. Jesus proved both his identity as Christ and his power to forgive by the miracles he performed (846). In fact, both “miracles and truth are necessary because the whole man must be convinced in body and soul.” Lastly, the gospel is confirmed by the blood of the apostles. Pascal rejects the notion that the gospel was a ruse of the apostles on the grounds that “the human heart is singularly susceptible to fickleness” (310). All it would take is for one of them to cave in under the enormous pressure and threat of pain and they all would be exposed. That they submitted to death makes the Gospels credible.

Conclusion

Though Pascal may not have set out to prove Christianity, he did prove that, “it is certain that there are no grounds for mocking those who accept it” (289). So we can confidently wager that God exists and submit to belief because the gospel is a reasonable solution to the condition of man, made more certain by prophecies, miracles and the martyrdom of the apostles. Even so, as Pascal himself experienced, “we shall never believe, with an effective belief and faith, unless God inclines our hearts, and we shall believe as soon as he does so” (380).

[1] Mark Galli and Ted Olsen, ed., 131 Christians Everyone Should Know (Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 2000), 61.

[2] Blaise Pascal, Pensees, trans. A. J. Krailsheimer(New York: Penguin, 1995), xii.

[3] Avery Cardinal Dulles, A History of Apologetics (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2005), 161.

[4] Pascal, Pensees, xxi.

[5] Pascal, Pensees, xii.

[6] Pascal, Pensees, xiii.

[7] Pascal, Pensees, 285-286.

[8] Dulles, Apologetics, 165.

[9] Dulles, Apologetics, 166.

[10] Dulles, Apologetics, 162.

[11] Galli and Olsen, 131 Christians, 62.

[12] Pascal, Pensees, 121-125.

[13] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2006), 104.

[14] Dawkins, Delusion, 105.

[15] Dawkins, Delusion, 104-105.

[1] Dawkins, Delusion, 105.

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