Since 1670, when they were first published, Blaise Pascal’s Pensées have proven to be extraordinarily influential upon the minds of Christians and non-Christians alike. Avery Dulles noted, “Few if any apologetical works have brought so many unbelievers on the way to faith.”
One might even argue that these scribbled thoughts of a French philosopher and mathematician have grown in importance over time. Peter Kreeft says they are “for today”—that, whereas most modern works of Christian apologetics are written as though we were still living in a Christian culture, the Pensées speak “to modern pagans, not to medieval Christians.”
Unless an apologist gets his first premise right, the rest of the argument has nothing to stand on. There are many reasons why the Pensées remain relevant, but one key reason is Pascal’s starting point: life is suffering.
Beginning with suffering
What is the greatest good for man? What is every human being really looking for? Most people will readily agree with Aristotle that it is happiness. Pascal agrees too: “All men seek happiness. There are no exceptions.”
The trouble is that we tend not to get what we want in this life—at least not entirely. Here enters the universal reality of human suffering. We are left unfulfilled in this life, and therefore we suffer.
The loss and deprivation of happiness are normative experiences for all human beings. “We seek happiness and find only wretchedness and death,” writes Pascal. This is where his approach is so strong. It begins with the most obvious spiritual fact about humanity that not even skeptics can deny, what Chesterton called the only part of Christian theology that can really be proven: the damaged soul of man.
Every man knows through his own interior experience that he is “wretched,” Pascal continues, “but he is truly great because he knows it.” Man knows he is wretched because he possesses an intellect; therefore, he is also able to do something intelligent about it. Man’s greatness resides in his power to change his situation.
The fear factor
Because Pascal understood the fundamental human condition of suffering, he had wise insight into the psychological barriers involved with conversion. One of those barriers, he says, is fear: “Men despise religion. They hate it and are afraid it may be true.” The eminent atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel gives credence to this observation:
I speak from experience, being strongly subject to this fear myself: I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.
What could be so scary about Christianity? One plausible answer might be the obligations, religious and moral, that would logically follow if Jesus were God. Perhaps non-believers recognize that they would need to change, radically, if Christianity turned out to be true. And change tends to involve suffering in direct proportion.
When a potential Christian fixates on the cost of discipleship—on the cross to be borne—conversion to Christianity seems utterly painful and undesirable. It is only once he sees clearly what is to be won (everything, according to Pascal) that the suffering of change and giving up short-term desires appear worthwhile. Even those who are not altogether convinced of Christianity may come to see that the eternal attainment of the greatest Good is perhaps worth the wager.
Conversion is a journey
One of the reasons my fellow countryman Jordan Peterson, a University of Toronto psychologist, has influenced such a wide swath of people—Catholics and Protestants, believers and non-believers, men and women—is that he speaks hard truths about human nature with genuine conviction. Like Pascal, he doesn’t sugar-coat the indiscriminate reality of man’s wretchedness.
Like Pascal, Peterson only begins with suffering. Then he moves to common-sense solutions, not for eliminating suffering but for living a meaningful life despite it. Peterson’s solutions are essentially practical in nature. Pascal, though, moves beyond the merely practical—his ultimate remedy for sin and suffering is not a mere strategy or archetypal interpretation of reality but a real, personal Savior who is the incarnation of the all-loving God:
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.
Teachers like Peterson offer hope for this life, and that is good and necessary; but we desire an end to our sin and suffering, indeed victory over death itself—not mere coping skills. Christ alone offers the ultimate, all-sufficient solution.
A gospel-based approach
The overall form of Pascal’s approach is nothing new. It is the same general plan of evangelization used by the apostles 2,000 years ago when they set the world ablaze. It is essentially the program laid out in St. Paul’s epistles: all men are sinners (Rom 3:23); if Christ has not been raised, then we are still in our sins (1 Cor. 15:17); but Christ has been raised! (1 Cor. 15:20.) Therefore, whoever believes in him will not perish but will have eternal life (John 3:16).
Pascal knew that faith working in love was the only way to the truest experience of happiness in this life; that a person can have all the coping strategies in the world, but if he has not uncompromising love for God and man, he has nothing (1 Cor. 13:1-3, Gal. 5:6). Life is suffering, yes. But in the life to come there awaits eternal bliss that no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor heart conceived of. For that reason, the Christian life is not marred by misery. It shines with joyful expectation.