Main Theme: Pascal’s Pensées
For People Who: Are a believer and want to embark upon a journey of self-examination or for an unbeliever who wants to explore the Christian faith.
Right before vacation season my brother-in-law told me about Christianity for Modern Pagans. We have talked several times about Blaise Pascal’s Penées (literally meaning Thoughts) and I had even started reading them several months ago. However, lacking anyone to discuss it with or explain difficult portions, it left me wanting. So I was truly excited to discover that Dr Peter Kreeft, professor of philosophy at Boston College and The King’s College, had written Christianity for Modern Pagans many years ago. To my heart’s delight, it did not disappoint. Kreeft takes the core of the Penées and, together, he and Pascal whisk the reader through the maze of human experience of death, wretchedness, boredom, diversion, and unhappiness in which Christ is our only escape. Faith and reason, the hiddenness of God, Scripture, and Pascal’s famous “wager” all take a prominent part in the second half. There were honestly moments I had to put the book down and reflect upon my own life. If Pascal’s Pensées are the nail, Kreeft’s own thoughts upon them are the hammer that drives them deep into the heart.
Pascal begins his apologetic with, and rests its argument on, one simple and undeniable fact: that we are unhappy…and that Christ alone can actually lead us from wretchedness to happiness. That is the “bottom line” or fundamental point of the whole argument of the Pensées. –Christianity for Modern Pagans, pg. 47
Normally I give big takeaways at this point. However, my big takeaways will serve as my short summary to give the reader a brief overview of major ideas.
Unhappiness / Wretchedness
Pascal uses “wretchedness” (unhappiness) and “happiness” in their more ancient meaning than our modern use of the terms. Kreeft defines the different meanings in this way:
- To us moderns, “happiness” connotes a subjective feeling, not an objective state…To the ancients, happiness was to the soul what health was to the body.
- Our word “happiness” comes from the Old English “hap” (chance, luck, fortune)…Thus happiness is not under our control.
- To us, happiness is present and transitory rather than permanent: a momentary “high” rather than the quality of a whole life, as Aristotle defines it. (pg. 27)
The first step of Pascal’s apologetic (defense) is to demonstrate the consciousness of our own wretchedness. “I’m not okay.” Kreeft says that, for Pascal, this was of utmost importance, for, “Free heart surgery is good news to one who knows he has a fatal heart disease but not to one who denies it (Ps. 51:10). (pg. 28). In number 403, Pascal wrote:
Solomon and Job have known and spoken best about man’s wretchedness, one the happiest, the other the unhappiest of men; one knowing by experience the vanity of pleasure, and the other the reality of afflictions. -Pensée #403
To read the Pensées is to hear an echo of the Teacher in Ecclesiastes: “meaningless, meaningless, everything is meaningless.” For without God, man has nothing though he be the richest man in the world. But with God, man has everything though he be the poorest soul on earth. Upon reflection we realize this about ourselves. There is something not right with me. And so St. Thomas’ words are true when he says, “Man cannot live without joy. That is why it is necessary that a man deprived of spiritual joys goes over into carnal pleasures.” (pg. 78)
We are not satisfied with the life we have in ourselves and our own being. We want to lead an imaginary life in the eyes of others, and so we try to make an impression. We strive constantly to embellish and preserve our imaginary being, and neglect the real one. And if we are calm, or generous, or loyal, we are anxious to have it known so that we can attach these virtues to our other existence…We would cheerfully be cowards if that would acquire us a reputation for bravery. -Pensée #806
Pascal certainly wrote before his time. Hundreds of years before the advent of social media.
Imagine a number of men in chains, all under sentence of death, some of whom are each day butchered in the sight of the others; those remaining see their own condition in that of their fellows, and looking at each other with grief and despair await their turn. This is an image of the human condition. –Pensée #434
Death is the only certainly in life. Kreeft makes the point that our birth beds are also our deathbeds. St Augustine remarked that when a baby is born people will wonder many things about the child, but they will not wonder if the child will one day die. It is an inevitable fact of life. So we can accept one of five solutions about our most assured predicament:
- We can ignore it and stick our head in the sand.
- We can simply accept it as a part of life.
- We can look up at it and despair without hope.
- We can put our hope in the idea that one day science will conquer death.
- We can “Put [our] faith in God, in Christ, in Resurrection.” (pg. 145-146)
Diversion / Boredom
We are unhappy. But we are powerless to do anything about it. Kreeft consistently uses the metaphor that we are sharks. We cannot stop or we die. When proper food is not available, we eat anything. Kreeft says that, “The fact that we do not see our weakness is our deepest weakness.” (pg. 99)
In #136, one of my personal favorites, Pascal remarks:
I have often said that the sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his own room…The only thing for men therefore is to be diverted from thinking of what they are, either by some occupation which takes their mind off it, or by some novel and agreeable passion which keeps them busy, like gambling, hunting, some absorbing show, in short by what is called diversion. #136
Kreeft make the observation that the thing the ancients craved is the very thing we thrust upon our worst criminals: solitude. We can’t sit quietly alone with ourselves because we don’t like to think about who we really are underneath. So we work, work, work, and play, play, play. We divert our attention away from self-reflection and occupy it with meaningless frivolities all to avoid the fact that deep down inside: we are unhappy wretches. “Success is the sure spoiler. We are happy only climbing the mountain, not staying peacefully on the summit; only chasing the fox, not catching it; only courting, not marrying; only traveling, not arriving; only fighting wars, not keeping a boring peace.” (pg. 181)
Ultimately we seek pleasure in what cannot truly satisfy. We are enjoying drinks aboard the Titanic as it sinks. But lest we think Pascal is against seeking excitement, we find him questioning what motivates us to seek such excitement:
The trouble is that they want it as though, once they had the things they seek, they could not fail to be truly happy. That is what justifies calling their search a vain one…When men are reproached for pursuing so eagerly something that could never satisfy them, their proper answer, if they really thought about it, ought to be that they simply want a violent and vigorous occupation to take their minds off themselves and that is why they choose some attractive object to entice them in ardent pursuit. –#136
Therefore, because we are never truly satisfied, we face a perpetual state of boredom. Our appetite for God is filled with all the world has to offer. Kreeft makes one of the most powerful statements in the book: We are bored with God because our hearts do not hunger for God, seek God, love God. The ancients were not bored because they hungered. We are so full of our hunger for earthly riches that we have little hunger for the Heavenly. (pg. 202-203)
The Hiddenness of God
Why doesn’t God just write His name across the sky so that everyone would see it and believe? The famous atheist Bertrand Russell, upon his deathbed, was asked what he would say to God if he discovered God existed on the other side of death and Russell responded: Why didn’t you give us more evidence?
There is enough light to enlighten and enough obscurity to humiliate them. There is enough obscurity to blind the reprobate and enough light to condemn them and deprive them of excuse. -#236
Far from evidence against God’s loving character, the hiddenness of God shows immaculate love and concern. Should God show too much of Himself then even the worst of sinners would choose Him against their will. Kreeft says earlier in the book, “God is a lover, not a rapist.” (pg. 198) However, if God showed any less of Himself then we would know too little and hence would not be responsible for our actions of wickedness.
If there were no light man would not hope for a cure. Thus it is not only right but useful for us that God should be partly concealed and partly revealed, since it is equally dangerous for man to know God without knowing his own wretchedness as to know his wretchedness without knowing God. -#446
This is perhaps the Pensée that Pascal is most famous for producing. It is what we typically call: The Wager.
I should be much more afraid of being mistaken and then finding out that Christianity is true than of being mistaken in believing it to be true. -#387
In other words, we can ‘bet’ that God exists when He doesn’t, or we can ‘bet’ that God doesn’t exist when He does. If we choose to “wager” that God does exist, when He doesn’t, then at the end of our lives we have lived selfless, humble, loving lives that reap no reward after death. If we choose to” wager” that God doesn’t exist, and He does, then we may have enjoyed the diversions and pleasures of this life for a time, but judgement comes after death and we lose everything. We each make a choice. Do not be deceived into thinking that agnosticism keeps us from choosing. Kreeft declares, “Death turns agnosticism into atheism. For death turns “Tomorrow” into “Never.” (pg. 300) In other words, if we continue to be indecisive until death, an irrevocable “No” will have been our choice.
Jesus, totally abandoned, even by the friends He had chosen to watch with Him…He prays only once that the cup might pass from Him, even when submitting Himself to God’s will, and twice that it should come if it must be so. Jesus weary at heart. Jesus, seeing all His friends asleep and all His enemies watchful, commends Himself utterly to His Father. Jesus regards the enmity of Judas, and sees only in him God’s will, which He loves; so much so that He calls him friend…We implore God’s mercy, not so that He shall leave us in peace with our vices, but so that He may deliver us from them…’I am a better friend to you than this man or that, for I have done more for you than they, and they would never endure what I have endured from you, and they would never die for you, while you were being faithless and cruel, as I did…I love you more ardently than you have loved your foulness…’ -#919
Ultimately we are left pointed toward Christ and Christ alone. If you are an unbeliever, I would recommend this book if you are interested in seeking a more well-rounded view of Christianity. If you are a believer, I recommend this book because it will drive you to the foot of the cross of Christ. It will remind you of who you were before Christ, what He has done, and where we have a tendency to revisit in our lives. May we ever be hungry for God and bored with the world. May we ever find satisfaction in a Savior who gave us everything even in our wretchedness. May we see Christ more clearly and emanate His character in the world. Kreeft finishes out this wonderful work with this line: “We really do meet and touch and help or harm Christ in our neighbors. If we lived this one thought, we would convert and transform the world.” (pg. 333)
Information and Personal Rating
- Title: Christianity for Modern Pagans: PASCAL’s Pensees Edited, Outlined, and Explained
- Author: Peter Kreeft
- Published: 1993
- Pages: 341
Personal Ratings (1-10)
- Applicability: 10
- Readability: 8
- Originality: 10
- Recommendation: Yes!