The Roman Catholic church is not generally considered doctrinally "broad," and indeed many of its most fascinating theological voices -- ranging from Pelagius in the fifth century to Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, S.J., in the twentieth -- have often bordered on, or crossed over into, outright heresy. However, I wish to look at two explicitly Roman Catholic apologies for religious belief -- one written by an actual cleric, Monsignor Luigi Giussani, and the other written by the great French polymath Blaise Pascal -- to compare and contrast the rationales offered for religious belief. Pascal's affiliation with Jansenism -- more of a religious revival within Catholicism, although eventually condemned as heretical by the Vatican -- may have led him to a fraught relationship with organizational structures of the Church (particularly the Jesuits) but I think overall we will find that Pascal's thinking is more in line with the contemporary orthodoxy of Msgr. Giussani, and is considerably more complicated than the one theological notion for which Pascal remains famous with the public at large, his much-discussed "wager," might otherwise lead us to believe.
The origins of the religious sense are described differently by Pascal and Giussani, but I do not think there is anything irreconcilable about their placement of reason at the heart of the human religious sense. Indeed Pascal's Pensees begins with a definition of reason, which is (unsurprisingly) somewhat related to Pascal's work in mathematics. This opening discussion may remind us that, as a child prodigy of sorts, Pascal had managed to construct proofs for many of Euclid's propositions without having read Euclid -- certainly this seems to be the origin of Pascal's claim that "People are generally better persuaded by the reasons which they have themselves discovered than by those which have come into the mind of others." (Pensees 9) Later in the Pensees, in Pascal's extended devaluation of "imagination" as a force leading to religious belief -- he sees imagination instead as a dangerous source of error -- he will express his view of the limitations of reason:
Love or hate alters the aspect of justice. How much greater confidence has an advocate, retained with a large fee, in the justice of his cause! How much better does his bold manner make his case appear to the judges, deceived as they are by appearances! How ludicrous is reason, blown with a breath in every direction! I should have to enumerate almost every action of men who scarce waver save under her assaults. For reason has been obliged to yield, and the wisest reason takes as her own principles those which the imagination of man has everywhere rashly introduced. He who would follow reason only would be deemed foolish by the generality of men. We must judge by the opinion of the majority of mankind. Because it has pleased them, we must work all day for pleasures seen to be imaginary; and after sleep has refreshed our tired reason, we must forthwith start up and rush after phantoms, and suffer the impressions of this mistress of the world. This is one of the sources of error, but it is not the only one. (Pensees 82)
Pascal is right to see that reason is in some way subject to an underlying motivation which may render it "ludicrous" and "blown with a breath in every different direction" -- when the imagation predominates then even "the wisest reason takes as her own principles those….rashly introduced" by it. Given Pascal's own largely solitary life, frequently incapacitated by agonizing illness, we should probably view this discussion as more of a condemnation of the errors committed under intellectual mob-rule (as it were) rather than the ultimate limitations of reason. Certainly Giussani thinks that the "religious sense" is inherent and related to the sense of reason -- indeed he defines it that way:
The religious sense is reason's capacity to express its own profound nature in the ultimate question; it is the "locus" of consciousness that a human being has regarding existence. Such an inevitable question is in every individual, in the way he looks at everything. (Giussani 56)
In the same chapter, Giussani will offer the most basic reasons as to why this intellectual quest is inevitable for people. It is inevitable because of the looming prospect of death: death is both "the origin and the stimulus for all searching" and "the most powerful and bold contradiction in the face of the unfathomability of the human question" in Giussani's formulation (55). But Giussani thinks that this questing intelligence is also inbuilt as the sort of nature of human existence: "Life is hunger, thirst, and passion for an ultimate object, which looms over the horizon, and yet always lies beyond it. When this is recognized, man becomes a tireless searcher." (51). Yet Giussani ultimately thinks that reason does not make belief in God a self-evident geometrical proposition, in the way that Pascal comes close to doing. Giussani first of all defines reason as "the need to understand the existent, but because in life this is not possible, fidelity to reason forces us to admit the existence of something incomprehensible" (117). Instead, Giussani sees "Reason's highest achievement" as "the intuition that an explanation exists exceeding the measure of reason itself" (132). This allows Giussani to find the essence of Christianity in its mystery, which proves a source of endless contemplation for the reason: the risk instead, as he expresses it, is to fall into a search for solid answers which -- in Giussani's explanation -- is closely related to the traditional prohibition on idolatry. Since so few Christians seem to run the risk of committing literal idolatry nowadays, Giussani explains it in terms of seeking an infallible intellectual shibboleth which might act as "the measure of everything, or in other words, it means to claim to be God" (137).
Yet if both writers consider reason to be an appropriate means for approach to God and religious belief (without necessarily sidestepping the credo quia absurdum element of Christian theology overall) then it is worth inquiring what they make of the evidence presented by the world as a subject fit for the reason's contemplation in order to lead one to religious belief. For Pascal, this fits into an older system of typology, which he expresses at length in the Pensees:
God, wishing to form for Himself an holy people, whom He should separate from all other nations, whom He should deliver from their enemies, and should put into a place of rest, has promised to do so, and has foretold by His prophets the time and the manner of His coming. And yet, to confirm the hope of His elect, He has made them see in it an image through all time, without leaving them devoid of assurances of His power and of His will to save them. For, at the creation of man, Adam was the witness, and guardian of the promise of a Saviour, who should be born of woman, when men were still so near the creation that they could not have forgotten their creation and their fall. When those who had seen Adam were no longer in the world, God sent Noah whom He saved, and drowned the whole earth by a miracle which sufficiently indicated the power which He had to save the world, and the will which He had to do so, and to raise up from the seed of woman Him whom He had promised. This miracle was enough to confirm the hope of men. (Pensees 643).
That "image through all time" which God has "made them see" is, at Pensees 658, identified (fragmentarily in Pascal's text, it seems) with a means "to show that the Old Testament is only figurative" (Pensees 658). Such quibbles about the literal truth of scripture are rather alien to Roman Catholic theology in the twentieth century, although the notion of Biblical typology will enter Giussani's argument as well. However, Giussani also relies on a more contemporary adaptation of this traditional typology. He defines a sign as "a reality which refers me to something else" (112). This, of course, is to some degree exactly how creation itself ought to appear to human reason:
I can express this reaction with questions: What is this in front of me? Why this? A kind of strange unknown lies within such questions: the world, the real provokes me towards an other. (111)
If this emphasis on a confrontation with the otherness of God sounds like an application of Martin Buber's methods in I and Thou to Karl Barth's conception of God as "totaliter aliter," that is to some degree what Giussani's argument resembles. But Giussani's theological vision -- as befits his Roman Catholicism, with its persistent theological emphasis on the incarnation as one of the chief spiritual differences between the Catholic conception of God and the Jewish or Protestant -- is substantially warmer and more humane than either Buber or Barth would permit. With a rather wry sense…