This post is the third of an ongoing series on the Pensees by the 17th-century Apologist Blaise Pascal.
In his Pensees, Blaise Pascal pursues his apologetic task in A LETTER TO FURTHER THE SEARCH FOR GOD [Fragment 681] an essay concerned with answering the objection often asserted by skeptics of Christianity, that insufficient evidence exists to believe the faith, namely, direct, universal, and dramatic revelation.
Quoting Isaiah 45:15, a passage in which the prophet calls Yahweh the “hidden God,” Latin, Deus Absconditus. Pascal counters that the scriptures never claim to give “a clear vision of God” that is “plain and unhidden.” Quite the contrary, the Bible avers that humanity “is in darkness, and estranged from God.” Knowledge of God is obscured by our own error, not deficiency on His part. This is not to say God cannot be found, or will not reveal himself, even miraculously. Rather, incredulous people have failed to genuinely seek, which Pascal considers the pinnacle of folly. He describes such a person.
They think they have made great efforts to learn when they have spent a few hours reading a book of the Bible, and have questioned some ecclesiastic about the truths of the faith. After that, they boast that they have consulted books and men unsuccessfully. But in fact, I would tell them what I have often said, that such negligence is intolerable. It is not a question here of the passing interest of some stranger for us to treat it like this. It is a question of ourselves, and our all.
Pascal hints on the personal nature of knowledge, a subject in which most contemporary philosophers and theologians find agreement, and one found throughout scripture. An example can be found from Jesus’ question to the Pharisees in John 8:43 “Why do you not understand what I say?” with its accompanied answer, “…It is because you cannot bear my word.”
Men and women are not passive receptacles, merely receiving information and drawing conclusions, from a neutral starting point. We passionately pursue what is important to us, and believe those things that concern our deepest-held longings and desires.
In several places, Pascal explains what he means by this. Fragment 142 reads “We know the truth not only by means of reason but also by means of the heart. It is through the heart that we know the first principles, and reason which has no part in this knowledge vainly tries to contest them.” Though readers in a postmodern age are inclined to accept such statements, most 17th century thinkers would vehemently disagree with Pascal on this point. Going further, Pascal is bold enough to claim, “without the scriptures, which have Jesus Christ as their sole subject, we know nothing and see only darkness and confusion in the nature of God and in nature itself.” [Fragment 36]
Returning to Pascal’s LETTER, his central point is that the Christian faith makes ultimate claims about aspects of existence that warrant diligent and honest investigation by all persons without exception. More than that, the Church teaches that God rewards those who seek Him and promises to be found by them.
Pascal did believe one could find genuine seekers, those who “sincerely lament their doubting who regard it as the ultimate misfortune, and who sparing nothing to escape from it, make of this search their principal and most serious occupation.” But what baffled Pascal are those who live in apathetic indifference to life, death, heaven, hell and eternity. Pascal speaks poignantly and powerfully in one of the most well-known selections in the Pensees.
In the same way that I do not know where I came from, neither do I know where I am going, and know only that on leaving this world I either fall into nothingness for ever, or into the hand of an angry God, without knowing which of these two states will be my condition in eternity. Such is my state, full of weakness and uncertainty. And I conclude from all this that I must spend every day of my life without thinking of inquiring into what will happen to me. I could perhaps find some enlightenment among my doubts, but I do not want to take the trouble to do so, nor take one step to look for it. And afterwards, sneering at those who are struggling with the task, I will go without forethought or fear to face the great venture, and allow myself to be carried tamely to my death, uncertain as to the uncertainty of my future state.
Yet we should not lose heart. The same God, Deus Absonditus in Isaiah, says to Israel through another prophet, “You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart.” (Jeremiah 29:13)
While sincere seekers are rare, they are never abandoned, nor will they be put to shame who in truth, seek the hidden God.