Pascal: Faith & Reason


Letter TThe question of the relationship between faith and reason is one of the perennial questions within Christian philosophy.

Nearly every major Christian thinker down through the ages has said something on the topic of faith and reason, especially those with some sort of apologetic in mind. The greats of these ranks include those such as Tertullian, Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas in the ancient and medieval church, and those such as Kierkegaard, Van Til, and Bavinck in the more modern world.

Coming closer towards the beginning of the modern period stands Blaise Pascal, a French mathematician and philosopher of the 17th-Century perhaps best known for his famous assertion that “The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing.” In the preface to his commentary on Pascal’s Pensées, Peter Kreeft asserts that “God in his infinite mercy struck Pascal dead at the tender age of thirty-nine, before he could complete the greatest book of Christian apologetics ever written.”

Being a work of apologetics the Pensées naturally discusses the relationship between human reason and the Christian faith, indeed epistemology is the topic of the very first chapter and Pascal spends the bulk of the book elaborating on the topic.

His first paragraph begins with a discussion of the difference between the strictly rational and the intuitive minds, and it is this distinction which serves to undergird the majority of his arguments throughout the text. In making the distinctions that he does Pascal is often approached with some hesitation by those within Christianity for seemingly removing the sphere of faith from that of reason.

These critics label Pascal at best as a fideist, or at least as having fideistic tendencies, at worst as a mystic. There thus arises the question of what the relationship between faith and reason is for Pascal and in what category this view places him in.

His aforementioned assertion regarding the reasons of the heart as well as the statement in his wager that neither the proposition “God is” nor the one that “He is not” can be defended according to reason certainly seem to demonstrate a clear hostility to the things of reason. Yet Pascal asserts that there are actually two excesses: “to exclude reason, to admit nothing but reason.”

Pascal as an apologist was not hostile to reason, rather, he saw the proper place for reason in its relation to the things of faith; Pascal recognized the limits of reason, and rather than assert that faith is contrary to the ideal of reason he asserted that it is beyond and above reason, specifically reason as it is in fallen man.

pascal.jpegIn examining this position it will be helpful to examine his view of epistemology, specifically his distinction between the rational mind and the intuitive mind, to examine his view of apologetical proofs, and finally to take a look at some of the arguments that Pascal does actually provide for the Christian faith.

Pascal and Epistemology

In discussing the relationship between faith and reason it is only natural to begin with a discussion of epistemology.

As has already been mentioned Pascal begins his Pensées by discussing the difference between the ‘mathematical’ or ‘geometric’ mind – that is, the mind of pure reason – and the intuitive mind, which is roughly the realm of ‘feeling’ or of the heart. The former is the aspect of thought “which uses principles and demonstrations”; it is that part of the mind which uses premises to arrive at conclusions, and thus by ‘reason’ Pascal here means discursive or logical reasoning. The latter is the aspect of thought through which “we know first principles,” it is that aspect which discerns the premises. This includes both logical principles like the law of non-contradiction as well as ethic principles like doing good and avoiding evil.

A good summation of this division comes in Pascal’s statement that “Principles are felt [intuited], propositions proved, and both with certainty though by different means.”

This statement is also of importance because in it one can observe that Pascal once again does not wholly dismiss the validity of reason, he notes that propositions can indeed be proven with certainty. Where Pascal separates himself from the great thinkers of his day – the rationalists – is in maintaining that there is something which can create certainty apart from the reason.

It is this rebellion against the Cartesian method that is the initial thrust of Pascal’s apologetic, to assert that discursive reasoning is not the sole authority for arriving at knowledge and understanding.

The tendency of Pascal’s contemporaries who also rebelled against rationalism was to side with other great thinkers of the day – the empiricists – yet Pascal was careful to avoid this as well.

Thus while both the reason and the senses do convey knowledge, there is something else which also conveys knowledge, that is, the intuition of the heart – thus the heart may have ‘reasons’ which are not arrived at (known) by the reason. This intuition of the heart is not strictly opposed to reason or to the senses, rather it is above them, beyond them (and given that it provides the first principles on which reason functions, it is ‘before’ them): “Reason’s last step is the recognition that there are an infinite number of things which are beyond it.”

This realm of the heart which is above and beyond reason is for Pascal also the realm of faith, hence “It is the heart which perceives God and not the reason. That is what faith is: God perceived by the heart, not by the reason.”

For those who would define fideism pejoratively as a faith which is against reason this would seem to clear Pascal of the charge. Yet for those who define fideism as any epistemology which sets its foundation outside of reason, Pascal still stands firmly within that realm. It is also of great importance here to note another division, or clarification – though one which is more implied by Pascal than it is stated outright – that is the division between the ideal of reason and the fallen reality of reason.

If by reason one refers to the latter then Pascal indeed states that faith is opposed to this sort of reason.

Thus Pascal states that “There no doubt exist natural laws, but once this fine reason of ours was corrupted, it corrupted everything” so that “nothing, according to reason alone, is just in itself.” On the one hand this is a simple observation along the same lines of the one C.S. Lewis makes in his book The Abolition of Man, where he states that “If nothing is self-evident, nothing can be proved.”

On the other it is an acknowledgement of the noetic effects of sin. The division is between the ideal of reason and the reality of reason, where the former may be perfectly in line with – even if above – faith and the latter may be against it.

The implication of this division can be seen again in such statements asAll mathematicians would then be intuitive if they had clear eyesight” and “One of the ways in which the damned will be confounded is that they will see themselves condemned by their own reason, by which they claimed to condemn the Christian religion,” which implies that in the final days when all eyes have clear eyesight then the reasonableness of the Christian faith will be clearly seen.

To say that the fallen reason is opposed to faith in this sense is not to say that it is merely opposed to faith, but that it is opposed to the intuitions of the heart in general, which in this context means to be opposed to first principles.

Therefore Pascal says “It is through the [heart] that we know first principles, and reason, which has nothing to do with it, tries in vain to refute them.” It is because of this that “If we submit everything to reason our religion will be left with nothing mysterious or supernatural.” Yet submitting everything to reason will not only leave the faith with nothing supernatural, but trying to found everything to reason will also leave morals defunct so that “whoever carries it back to its first principles destroys it.”

It may therefore be observed that there are two chief divisions in Pascal’s epistemology: the first is between the intuitive mind (the heart) which discerns first principles directly, and the rational mind which uses principles in order to arrive at conclusions; the second is between the rational mind as it would function ideally and the rational mind as it functions in fallen humanity.

As regards the first division, faith stands as a work of the intuitive mind, a work of the heart and of clear eyes, above reason. As regards the second division, faith stands in accord with reason as it would operate ideally (although it is not a product of this reason), yet in opposition to reason as it operates in the fallen human mind.

Thus faith must be instilled into man from above by God through a reorientation of the heart and a clearing of the eyes.

For Pascal this reorientation may or may not be accompanied by proper reasoning, therefore he states that Christians should “not be surprised to see simple men believe without reasoning” although generally religion is put “into the mind by reasons, and into the heart by grace.” It may thereby be observed that Pascal would maintain that in some cases the reason may be bypassed.

A final restatement may need made at this point for clarification. That is, while Pascal may imply that Christianity is in accord with the ideal reason, this is not to say that salvation is simply a matter of fixing the reason that it may recognize the truth of Christianity.

As Pascal states many times in multiple ways, it is the heart which perceives God and not the reason. Unless the heart perceives and the eyes are directed at Christ, then even the ideal reason would work in vain. Afterall, the reason works from premises and principles, and these principles must be discerned by the heart and the eyes.

If the principles are not discerned, then even perfect reason cannot come to a correct conclusion; thus, the need of the nonbeliever goes far beyond simply the correcting of a cognitive defect, their heart must be turned by the cross.

Pascal and Apologetics: Proofs

This division between the ideal reason and the fallen reason leads well into the discussion of Pascal’s approach to the use of rational arguments in general and proofs from nature and reason specifically.

While Pascal sees the insufficiency of rational arguments to produce faith he still notes that the apologist must nonetheless make use of them, saying “to those who do not have it we can only give such faith through reasoning, until God gives it by moving their heart, without which faith is only human and useless for salvation.” The reasoning which Pascal believes to be proper will be explored in the following section, though here it is of note that while Pascal believed that apologist must make use of reasons, he was not in favor of the traditional proofs; one of Pascal’s most direct statements on this topic is that “It is a remarkable fact that no canonical [Biblical] author has ever used nature to prove God.”

Thus not only does Pascal use Scripture as his precedent for not employing proofs but he also views them as generally ineffective: “The metaphysical proofs for the existence of God are so remote from human reasoning and so involved that they make little impact,” going on to state that even if they do help some people it will only be for the moment that the demonstration is in front of them.

Pascal acknowledges that such proofs are not only removed from the grasp of the general populace, but also that he did not believe they would convince a hardened atheist, especially because “such knowledge, without Christ, is useless and sterile.” It is important to note here that as Peter Kreeft points out “Pascal does not say that the traditional philosophical proofs of the existence of God are logically weak,” but merely that they are not permanently convincing or able to convert the heart from pride to humility.

Pascal and Apologetics: Reasons

Despite Pascal’s lack of confidence in proofs and his acknowledgement that reason is insufficient for producing faith (given that faith is a gift from God, beyond reason), he still maintained – as was mentioned above – that the Christian must still provide reasons until God moves in the unbelievers heart.

Yet the reasons that Pascal provides are not general reasons which may lead to a deistic god just as easily as to the Christian God, for Pascal views deism as being just as opposed to Christianity as is atheism.

He – like Cornelius Van Til – is not content to prove the god of mathematical truths, but only the “God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob.”

Thus the reasons which Pascal provides for the faith are reasons which derive from Scripture; therefore he argues from miracles, from prophecies, from the uniqueness of Christianity in these ways as well as in how it is the only religion to “propose to men to hate themselves.” Following from this aspect of its uniqueness, Christianity is also the only religion which can “please those who hate themselves, and who seek a Being truly lovable.” Thus for Pascal it is in Christianity that men find true happiness. Pascal again argues from the improbability of the apostles plotting to say that Christ had risen and then dying for conspiracy.

It can be seen in this that Pascal uses a wide variety of reasons for defending the Christian faith, yet his reasons are founded on and unique to Christianity – they are not proofs which could be used to prove any general deity, thus Pascal’s quarrel is “not with those who seek to make a rational case for faith, but with those who seek to know God as a philosophical abstraction or theoretical entity.”

Classifying Pascal

It has been observed thus far that Pascal sets the intuition of the heart as a thing which is beyond reason. Faith is a work of the heart for Pascal, and thus without a work in the heart by God faith will not be accomplished, regardless of whatever reasons may be provided to the rational mind.

While for Pascal it may be possible to have faith without reasoning, on the whole he posits that God changes the heart and the mind upon salvation, thus it is possible for Christianity to make sense within its own system (according to the ideal of reason rather than its fallen state).

For the rationalist, this removes faith their sphere.

From the outside the Christian faith is seen as having a gap which cannot be passed by reason alone, hence Pascal notes that the faith appears foolish since even though there are apparent reasons “it is not all this which makes people belong to it.”

It is this gap which motivates Pascal to posit such arguments as that in his wager, stating that since [discursive] reasoning is neither for or against Christianity that one should simply wager. Kierkegaard later on makes a similar sort of assertion with his leap, which is to “accept in faith that which indeed cannot be thought.”

Some would term this sort of stance as fideism while others such as Peter Kreeft would tselliot.jpgobject, although he offers no alternative classification. Some even bring up the charge of mysticism, though as T.S. Elliot points out in his introduction to the Pensées “Pascal was not a mystic… but what can only be called mystical experience happens to many men who do not become mystics.”

Elliot’s idea accounts both for the fact that a mystical (supra-rational) experience occurs, and yet the system itself is not mystical, yet Elliot also provides no category. Perhaps the best category which might be provided is that provided by C. Stephen Evans, positing that “Perhaps we should call fideism that can be rationally defended responsible fideism.

In this view as in Pascal faith is “beyond reason rather than against reason, since there is no necessary conflict with reason, but only a conflict with reason that has suffered damage but refuses to recognize this” resulting in a scenario of ‘faith seeking understanding’ similar to that of Anselm, where “To understand is to know the truth in the way it should be known.”

This responsible fideism would therefore be to acknowledge the actual state of the Christian faith as being something that although reasonable within its own system (according to the rectified reason rather than the fallen reason), yet also as something which cannot be reached through reason. It acknowledges that the problem is one of the heart rather than one of the mind.

This does operate at the risk of taking on the baggage of the term fideism, but if the Christian is to be intellectually honest this may be a necessary risk – there is a certain mystical or existential element to the Christian faith which cannot be denied, a moment of decision where “the individual needs divine assistance.”

Modern Relevance

As it was observed in the beginning the question of faith and reason is one of the perennial questions in Christianity, and this is just as true today as it was in Tertullian’s, in Anselm’s, in Pascal’s or in the modern day. On the one hand the Enlightenment desire for rationalism still pervades areas of thought today and many refuse to believe if concrete logical reasons cannot be provided to them. For these individuals Pascal reminds them of the logical reality that reason cannot produce its own principles and presuppositions, it reminds them that reason standing alone can only tear down principles, not establish them.

On the other hand there is also the great distrust logic which has reacted against the Enlightenment ideals and has gravitated towards emotion. For these individuals Pascal provides reasons as to how the Christian faith renders individuals “intelligible to ourselves and offers us a way to attain the self-completion that our hearts naturally and most deeply desire.”

For the Christian apologist who is faced with confronting these two groups as well as others, Pascal reminds them that the work of salvation is not in human hands, but rather that it is a work of God in the heart: “we cannot procure it for them by reasoning” but in the final call must wait “till God himself impress it on their hearts.”

Pascal centers his apologetic entirely on the need for the work of Christ, and therefore although he spends little time on the gospel as such he still provides an apologetic which takes the need for the gospel as its primary foundation. In the debate of which apologetic to use it is good to remember that the arguments of man are not the final producer of faith, that the work of God through Christ is ever the vital element.

As Pascal says, “What makes them believe is the cross.”




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