For about 10 years now, I’ve taught Philosophy and the History of Ideas at the College at Southeastern, and I’ve loved every minute of it. Aside from spending time with my students, one of the great pleasures of this job has been engaging a wide variety of literature that has shaped our world. Some of these works resonate deeply with me, and others make me angry. But all of the works we read are valuable in some sense.
Most people I talk to about these readings find it fascinating that we get to read such material. Many of them, however, are scared to death of trying to jump in and read these books by themselves. Perhaps a little help and encouragement will do the trick. Perhaps a few pointers and a little guidance will help more people engage the classical works and learn from them. So here’s what we will be doing on Wednesdays on the blog. We will take anywhere from 3-6 weeks to explore an important book together. I’ll recommend a book and for several weeks every Wednesday, I’ll offer a few observations about the book that should help you pick it up and begin working through it.
Today we begin with Blaise Pascal’s Pensées, or more specifically, Peter Kreeft’s version of the Pensées titled Christianity for Modern Pagans: Pascal’s Pensées (you can purchase it here). For now, I’d suggest trying to read the first 50 pages and we can go from there next week.
Admittedly, Kreeft’s version of the Pensées has a massive amount of Kreeft’s thought in it, but his commentary and organization are extremely helpful. Pascal, a 17th century Frenchman, was a mathematician, scientist, and Christian philosopher who was particularly interested in apologetics and helping people think about their need for God. For now I’ll skip over his historical background (though his life is fascinating and worth your time to explore) and get straight to the book itself.
As Kreeft notes throughout the introduction, the title—Christianity for Modern Pagans—was chosen because it reflects the nature of Pascal’s work. He suggests that most apologetics (both then and now) is done within the Christian community and apologists write as though they are speaking to their brothers and friends. But Pascal, Kreeft notes, wrote for the modern pagan.
Pascal did so by starting with the psychological factors that contribute to the skeptic’s skepticism. He notes that men have a natural hostility towards religion and fear of religious truth. As such, they come to religion with the hope that it is not true. And as a result, it is often difficult to even begin the conversation or to get the skeptic to consider faith. Pascal’s strategy is to change the skeptic’s psychological disposition towards faith by helping them see that they actually do have reasons for hoping that religion is true. Pascal says, “Men despise religion. They hate it and are afraid it may be true. The cure for this is first (1) to show that religion is not contrary to reason, but worthy of reverence and respect. Next (2) make it attractive, make good men wish it were true, and then (3) show that it is” (p. 28). Each step in the process is important, but step (2) is most intriguing to me. How do we “make good men wish it were true”? Pascal did it by reminding men of their mortality, the brevity of their life, and the hope that Christ provides as a remedy to those problems. In short, he forces us to reckon with the realities of death and how this points to a hope for something beyond. Unless we begin with this, Pascal fears that the skeptic will always find reason not to listen to anything else we might say.
There is much more to consider about Pascal’s work, but this is a good place to start. Jump into the first few chapters to see how he guides us to think about the way we engage the skeptic. I suspect that his psychological approach to apologetics has much for us today and so I recommend that we begin here. I hope you’ll join me. Pick it up and read. You won’t regret it, I promise!