A New Work on Pascal and Christianity

Source: FSSPX News

With 2023 marking the 400th anniversary of his birth, it is not surprising new works are appearing on the scientist-philosopher, Blaise Pascal. Pope Francis already penned an apostolic letter on the great French thinker; now the political scientist Pierre Manent has a book-length essay on him.

“Four centuries after his birth, Pascal remains for us the traveling companion who accompanies our search for true happiness and, according to the gift of faith, our humble and joyful recognition of the dead and resurrected Lord,” explains the Pope in his apostolic letter, Sublimitas et miseria hominis, signed on June 19, 2023, the day Pascal’s 400th birthday was celebrated.

Pascal is a demanding “travel companion” who is not very accommodating towards modernity, as Pierre Manent shows, throughout a remarkable essay published by Grasset: Pascal and the Christian Proposition.

It was during the 17th century, when the sovereign state was being constructed and where the State claimed to become the measure of all things, that Pascal synthesized in a “fragmented and unfinished but powerful” form what Pierre Manent calls the “ Christian proposition.” This proposition is a linked set of dogmas insofar as they are offered for the consideration of our understanding and the consent of our will. These dogmas lead to a conversion towards a particular form of life, namely the Christian life.

Pascal in fact sensed the great danger during what history has consecrated with the name the “great century of souls,” specifically the appearance, between Church and state, of a space for those who “do not examine the substance of things. A space at the mercy of opinion leaders who, if they are competent or even learned in matters of religion, are driven by the passion to dominate more than by the concern for the truth.” What would Pascal have to say about the age of think-tanks and artificial intelligence?

The author of the Pensées intended to reveal a misuse of authority in the Church, an obscuration of Christian teaching of which, according to him, the Jesuits were guilty. The sons of St. Ignatius would thus have adapted the Catholic Faith in order to “never repulse anyone” and “so avoid driving people into despair.” Pascal chararacterized the Society of Jesus in Letter VI of his Provincial Letters as saying they “have maxims...for all sorts of people.” In other words, the Jesuits introduce a type of pluralism regarding religious and ethical opinions that continues to dominate today, including at the recently finished Synod on Synodality.

Now, for Pascal, all faith rests in and all morality comes down to freedom from concupiscence and grace. As Pierre Manent remarks, in this Pascalian perspective, the main issue in human life for the Christian lies in the relationship of men to God, and not in the relationship of men to each other.

Thus, believing that “loving our neighbor” is “the same thing” as loving God makes us believe that we are exempt from loving God. So, if “Christian values” remain important, it is no longer to save the sinner, but to make humanity more just. “This representation of things has little to do with Christianity, or rather it presupposes forgetting almost completely of what it constitutes,” explains Pierre Manent, in a beautiful critique of modernity (and false notions of mercy or charity), which today seems to have largely taken hold in the Church.

If we are not obliged to follow Pierre Manent in all his reflections – as in his opposition between St. Anselm and Pascal on the one hand, and St. Thomas Aquinas and Descartes on the other –, the fact remains that the author shows Christians the radicalness of the proposition of God as a friend of men. It is a proposition at the heart of the Pascalian approach and cannot be conceived without conversion and fidelity to the tradition of Christianity.

Pierre Manent, Pascal et la proposition chrétienne (Grasset 2023), 23€