Monday, January 14, 2008

Blaise Pascal: Insight into Faith (Post II)

Continued from Insight into Faith (Post I).

Blaise Pascal identifies a paradox of reality within the nature of humanity. Man stands torn as a medium between the two opposites of infinity and nothingness. After assessing the hopelessness in the ability of man to discern either the infinite or nothingness, Pascal turns to religion and faith as the way to leave the pit of despair. Since man can neither see the beginning, the nothingness from which he came, nor the end, the infinite towards which he is headed, only faith in God can bring comfort. Pascal, critical of Descartes, makes sure not to reduce God to a rational backing of a worldview and shows that we also need faith in God. Besides, God ultimately disappears past man’s ability to conceive or imagine.

Blaise realizes that everything, once reflected upon seriously, leads to its own mystery. All of man’s reason and man himself becomes as nothing in relationship to the infinite reality that surrounds him. Yet when man tries to study himself he dives into an infinite number of smaller and vaster things heading towards nothingness. Although man wants to comprehend everything he is left with understanding nothing.

For Pascal, man, when left to his own accord, is in a very helpless condition. Man seeks happiness in science and many other pleasures only to discover that he cannot become happy with himself or his abilities. Man orients all his activities in hope to become happy in the future but he cannot find contentment in the present. There is an excessive amount of activity without an overall purpose. Many run around in a helpless condition because both senses and reason fail in attaining truth. The senses deceive reason with faulty appearances and vice versa until both become enemies with one another and both are cast into doubt. The mortal condition of man in the dark has no way out of itself through itself.

A different approach must be taken, that of faith. Man must go out of himself and trust in more than his reason. But man must have something beyond himself to allow him to do this. Pascal believes that God places religion into both the mind, by reason, and the heart, by grace, and He does not force it upon either. Since there is not enough evidence to neither confirm nor deny God in the world, the grace of faith becomes a very valuable gift. In the context of this faith, if man thinks as he ought he can find this faith reasonable. Faith in God orders the ideas of man and allows him to be content with himself through his relationship with God. Instead of slipping into the darkness of meaningless, faith allows man to live with the assurance of eternity. The latter becomes a more reasonable way to live while the former creates a state of despair.

Blaise Pascal uses reason to show the reasonability of faith in God. Reason cannot produce faith in God but only open a person to the possibility. Through exploring the nature of both faith and reason, Pascal continues to affirm the limitations of reason and need for faith in a world shrouded with mystery. Pascal realizes the inability of reason to bring man into knowledge of God, and that all proofs for God from the works of nature only help those who already see God in all things. In hopes to open the mind to listen to the reasons of the heart, Pascal offers a wager, a gamble, by which he shows that faith may be the most reasonable way to live one’s life. Pascal also identifies two truths in religion and shows how both are intrinsic to understanding reality. Reason and heart need to work in harmony to receive the grace of true knowledge about one’s own condition and the need of God. Ultimately Pascal shows the Christian Religion as the culmination in which the knowledge of reason and heart find their calling.

In my next post I will take up the Pascal’s famous wager. My hope is to show its complexity within the context that Pascal intended it. I have heard many simplified versions that do not do justice the actual argument. Taken in its context this argument is very beautiful and compelling in its own right. Pascal does not merely try to appeal to reason but to the entire person including one’s desires and hopes as well as reason. This argument was never meant to replace faith but to merely open a person up to its possibility. Pascal sees faith as a divine grace that follows a person’s humility. Often reason blind to its own presuppositions and unjustified metaphysical beliefs against the possibility of God gets in the way of this openness, which is the very reason that Pascal’s argument is so beneficial.

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