Pascal for TodayPETER KREEFT
Pascal is the first postmedieval apologist.
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.
What are the facts? What was Jansenism, and what was Pascal?
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.
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.
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.
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.
*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.
Kreeft, Peter. “Pascal for Today.” from the Preface to Christianity for Modern Pagans: Pascal's Pensées. (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993).
Reprinted by permission of Ignatius Press. All rights reserved. Christianity for Modern Pagans: Pascal's Pensées.
Peter Kreeft teaches at Boston College in Boston Massachusetts. He is on the Advisory Board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.
Copyright © 1993 Ignatius Press
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