Thursday, 25 September 2008

Blaise Pascal on Doubt

A discussion of the Theology of Blaise Pascal in relation to doubt.

Blaise Pascal characterises the despair of the doubter as one who says the following:

“I know not who put me into the world, nor what the world is, nor what I myself am. I am in terrible ignorance of everything. .... I see those frightful spaces of the universe which surround me, and I find myself tied to one corner of this vast expanse, without knowing why I am put in this place rather than in another.... I see nothing but infinites on all sides, which surround me as an atom and as a shadow which endures only for an instant and returns no more.”

He goes on to argue that because Christianity proposes affirmative answers to the purpose and ultimate telos (end) of our lives and the world, it therefore demands the attention of the doubter, especially the one who seeks to know the truth and thus end his doubt. This is worth remembering when discussing with atheists and agnostics. Their ultimate answer as to the purpose of life, revelation and the hope that stems from this is a resounding ‘not sure – maybe’ or even a flat ‘no’. How often do we hear people say ‘ I would like to believe but....” It is to this ‘but’ or ‘no’ that Pascal turns to his attention and says that a person could only have a legitimate problem or ‘but’ with God and Christianity if ‘they had made every effort to seek Him everywhere, and even in that which the Church proposes for their instruction’ and still been left in despair or lack of faith. Indeed Pascal maintains that an open hearted and genuine search for the purpose of our lives in Christianity cannot leave us wanting. Moreover, Pascal contends that the only reason a person boasts about their apparently vain search for God is because they have not searched in complete sincerity of heart and have not treated the matter with the gravity it deserves. The issue of faith ‘concerns ourselves and our all’ and should therefore be approached as the single most important thing for us to find an answer to. According to Pascal it is only when we don’t do this that people say they have searched for God in vain. An honest, true search for God will lead us to him. Pascal wants people to pursue Christianity for what it is and not what we make it to be, and he contends that when we do this we will never be disappointed.
So then, after this rather rushed and sketchy overview of Pascal – what does he encourage the doubter to do to cure his doubt? Rather unsurprisingly he calls for them to attend Church, and to seek advice from Christians who have been ‘cured’ from similar doubts and to imitate their attitude towards it. He suggests that this will hopefully lead a person away from doubt and towards faith. “But this is what I am afraid of” could be a response of someone in such a position – nervous to make the first moves of faith. It is in this context that Pascal provides his wager argument (which is commonly misunderstood as an argument for the existence of God). Pascal reasons the following in response to this; given the doubters despair and their inability to solve the riddles of their own existence and the world, surely they have nothing to lose and should thus ‘bet’ on the existence of God and the pursuit of his will over and against a worldview which gives them no closure, no answers and no consolation. The answer for Pascal is obvious; bet on the existence of God; to whom/what else could we go?

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