Monday, January 07, 2008

Blaise Pascal: Insight into Faith (Post I)

This is the beginning of a series of posts on Blaise Pascal. I believe he is often a neglected and misunderstood Christian thinker, and I have experienced people misquote and critique him without actually understanding the perplexity of his thought. In the mid 1600's, Blaise Pascal made significant contributions to the fields of mathematics and science. After a conversion experience he reflected on his faith and eventually started writing his Apology for the Christian Religion, a work never finished. After he died, the notes for this work were collected and named the Pensees or "thoughts". Sadly many people use Pascal’s insights and especially his famous wager out of context. Here I hope to explore and reflect on some of his central ideas, particularly those regarding faith and reason. Quote numbers from Pascal in this series of posts refer to the numbers in which his collection of thoughts was labeled.

Reactionary to the pure rationalism of Descartes, Blaise shows the interplay and reasonability of faith. Pascal claims that reason is utterly insufficient for an absolute argument that proves the existence of God. Some may venture to argue that reason currently can or may be able to one day demonstrate that some higher power or God does exist, but in the end, even with this belief, reason still fails in itself to discern the nature of God as Trinity; this type of insight relies on the gift of revelation and faith. Knowing that a God exists isn’t the same as knowing who that God is and is even further removed from a relationship with such a God. While I agree that philosophy gives much insight into God and there are very convincing arguments that may be made for God's existence, most arguments for God only offer a reasonable hypothesis in which a person is left with a fundamental choice of belief. In other words, the existence of God is not so evident to faculty of reason that one would be forced to believe in God without it being an act of faith rooted in the will.

If God were only an abstract universal like laws governing numbers and mathematics, faith would be quite unnecessary, but because God is an eternal subject we are called to have a relationship with him that translates concretely into our lives in an act of faith. The God of Christianity is not merely an impersonal prime mover that stands at the beginning of a causal sequence that has, through time and space, resulted in our own existence, but God is the One who actively sustains all reality and presently keeps us existing while moving us towards our ultimate end--telos. Such a God that loves us and cares for our own sake wants more than our knowledge of Him but our love which is mediated through a personal relationship, trust, and obedience. Faith is fundamental in belief of God and this faith requires at least as much as an act of the will as an act of the intellect.

To be human, “man’s response to God by faith must be free, and…therefore nobody is to be forced to embrace the faith against his will. The act of faith is of its very nature a free act.” “God calls men to serve him in spirit and in truth. Consequently they are bound to him in conscience, but not coerced…This fact received its fullest manifestation in Christ Jesus."
–CCC 160

Furthermore, faith is important in everyday life. It underlies the humility necessary to receive truth. Our minds most earnest attempts cannot discern the full nature of God, but this knowledge must be received as a gift through divine revelation. Our philosophical understanding may support what has been divinely revealed, but it cannot replace it. For these reasons alone it is important that Christianity emphasizes the need for faith and relationship with God. Neither a blind faith apart from reason nor reason divorced from faith is healthy, but faith must be balanced with reason.

If God is the creator and author of all things, than we can reasonably assume the both that books of nature (truth discovered through reason) and revelation (truth revealed through the Church) have the same author, namely God. Therefore, while faith points to that which is prior and beyond reason; neither of these books can contradict each other. As Aquinas pointed out to his contemporaries and the university: truth cannot contradict truth.

As I will explore in my next posts, the beauty of Pascal's thought is that it eloquently points out the limits of man in order to open man up to a relationship to Him who is without limits. The person truly open to all possibilities must then openly consider the possibility that God really exists and is really trying to enter into a relationship if only that person would believe.

Post II.

No comments: