Theology Pascal's Projected Apologia for Christian Belief  Essay

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Pascal's projected apologia for Christian belief, for which the text of the Pensees offers some glimpse, would ultimately have reflected his sincere conversion (of sorts) to the gloomy Jansenist theology which hovers over his works generally. Ultimately rejected by the Roman Catholic church as heretical, Jansenism emphasized the fallen and corrupt nature of man in an Augustianian way, while at the same time suggesting that only God's grace can permit human action to rise above this fallenness. Pensees 133 notes that the fallenness is compounded by a willful refusal to see the facts: "unable to cure death" man instead seeks "diversion." At Pensees 24 he describes "man's condition" with a suitably Augustinian bleakness as consisting of "inconstancy, boredom, anxiety": the last two can surely be related to human life when viewed alongside the prospect of a future and eternal life. But the "inconstancy" seems to be Pascal's own way of registering even the doctrinal anxieties which placed his own theology at odds with the orthodox Roman Catholic variety current at that time, or else simply the failure of the real world to live up to the geometric and mathematical certainties which Pascal's earliest education (and writings) had emphasized.

But this scientism is ultimately the limitation of Pascal's style of argument, as seen in his famous "wager." Pascal's achievements in mathematics -- where he more or less established the idea of probability (related to wagering) -- argues that if there is any probability that God exists, the rational person will undergo whatever privations are demanded by religion in order to enjoy eternal life. Yet this argument offers no moral force when faced with contemplation of an heretical alternative -- if the Muslim heaven offers virgins and servants in addition to rapt contemplation of God, should it not be preferred? In other words, the wager argument itself is not between Christianity and any alternative, but between Christianity and those vast empty spaces of the universe, the contemplation of which so chilled Pascal, especially when considered to be devoid of God's presence. But to some degree this objection to Pascal's logic would be rejected by him as violating the spirit of the wager argument, which is an attempt to provide an argument for Christian belief in which the listener is expected to be persuaded by purely rational means. As belief in Cthulhu is not a truly rational alternative to belief in Jesus Christ, it would not be something to bet on. Likewise the Pensees deal with a traditional subject for any apologia for Christian belief, which is whether to regard the Bible as the literal truth. For Pascal, scripture fits into an older system of typology, which he expresses at length in the Pensees 643, stating that the typological reading of scripture reveals an "image through all time" which offers "assurance of His power and His will to save." At Pensees 658, that "image through all time" which God has "made them see" is, identified (fragmentarily in Pascal's text, it seems) with a means "to show that the Old Testament is only figurative" (Pensees 658). To some degree, Pascal's version of Christianity is already made more acceptable to the rational mind.

But at Pensees 512 Pascal distinguishes famously between the geometric intelligence and the "esprit de finesse," which means something like "subtle intelligence." In some sense, Pascal acknowledges that these are not that different, and that every mathematician would be intuitive, because "they do not reason incorrectly from principles known to them." The geometrical mind performs a clear and obvious job, which is only made difficult because of the rigorousness of its methodology. But the limitations of this as a means of approaching larger questions (i.e., through the kind of Thomist legalism which is dominant in Roman Catholic theology generally) are self-evident, and are reflected in Pascal's single most famous aphorism, "the heart has its reasons whereof reason knows nothing." In some sense the expression of the limitations of a purely rational and mathematical approach is why the wager argument seems a bit thin: the mathematics of the wager, from the standpoint of Pascal's own work in the field, are basically irrelevant since the prospect of future gain is infinite, which means that there is no need to calculate the actual odds (in the way that a real gambler would).


Theologians have frequently had recourse to Schleiermacher's "apologetics of immanentism" as a way of responding to critics of religious belief. By emphasizing the interiority of religious experience, this effectively defends the experience on the grounds of its interiority, as though to say that, debates about the existence of God notwithstanding, these accounts may at least be considered proof of something genuine. As William James, who would adapt and ramify Schleiermacher's defense in America in The Varieties of Religious Experience, liked to emphasize, religious experiences are very real to the people who have them. But does Schleiermacher's "apologetics of immanentism" actually offer a defense against the most influential critics of religious belief? I would like to explore in depth how theology responds to two central strands in religious criticism -- the Marxist and the Freudian -- by use of Schleiermacher's central concept.

It is important to note at the outset that Schleiermacher's fundamental conception reduces religious belief here to the status of the mystical experience. There is no defense of religion on the grounds of its status as inherited truth or wisdom, or a defense (in the style of Joseph de Maistre) of the pure institutional authority wielded by churches. The limitations of this approach should be self-evident -- it runs the risk of offering nothing but personal motives for religious belief, without offering any defense of doctrine or dogma. It is very seldom that anyone has a religious experience in which angels of the Lord discourse very learnedly on the concept of homoousia or Tertullian's view of the Trinity and graciously clarify any lingering doctrinal questions one may harbor. In other words, Schleiermacher's approach does away with the intellectual apparatus of traditional theology, in order to defend the value (and truth) of religion on the individual level. Such an exaltation of pure subjectivity is bound to result in a level of utter relativism, on the level of "one man, one creed."

In other words, Schleiermacher's defense itself already concedes ground to the rationalist objections to religion offered by the likes of Marx and Freud. For Marx, religion is the "opiate" of the masses, characterized as such presumably for its analgesic properties. The comforting narrative of a future life corresponds to Marx's sense of the fundamental "alienation" of the masses within the capitalist system, and makes this fact of "alienated labor" bearable. In other words, Marx's view is not particularly distinguished from Schleiermacher's, except in terms of value judgments placed upon the subjective experience: one is reminded of the anecdote in which (Marxist and atheist) George Bernard Shaw asked a woman if she would sleep with him for a million pounds. When she replied yes, he offered her twenty pounds, and she responded with indignation "What kind of a woman do you think I am?" Shaw replied "You have already demonstrated what sort of woman you are: now there is only haggling over the price." Similarly, Schleiermacher may offer a lofty and exalted view of the subjective experience, and Marx may offer a sordid and materialist account, but in both cases any intellectual defense of religion is deemed in advance to be irrelevant.

In the case of Freud as well, we already find him substantially in agreement with Schleiermacher. The "feeling of absolute dependence" which for Schleiermacher constitutes the essence of the religious experience is indistinguishable from the critique offered by Freud in the first chapter of Civiliazation and its Discontents, which defines religion in precisely similar terms. Freud describes the feeling of "oceanic" connectedness with some larger reality -- a feeling which characterizes religious experience, and which Freud confesses he himself has never experienced personally -- is in fact due to the "derivation of religious needs from the infant's helplessness and the longing for the father aroused by it" which, says Freud, "seems to me incontrovertible." Freud then notes "I cannot think of any need in childhood as strong as the need for a father's protection" (Freud 19). At this point, one is tempted to gently inquire of "Viennese wizard" (as Vladimir Nabokov liked to call Dr. Freud) if he really thinks that any infant is capable of longing for a father rather than a mother at such an early developmental stage, or if the need for a father's protection is really so much stronger than the need for a mother's nutrition. In other words, Freud has already invented his own version of how subjective experiences proceed to explain God away as the ultimate father figure, in a fictive attempt to write the so-called "Oedipus complex" (or homicidal impulse toward father figures) as a kind of foundational myth for humanity.


Nicholas Lash's remarks in Holiness, Speech and Silence are intended…

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