Epiphanies, Blaise Pascal and “le pari” (The Wager)
Four books recently caught my attention. The first is a spiritual biography of Blaise Pascal, the second a reorganization of his Pensees, the third a detailed analysis of “le pari,” Pascal’s notes on the wager every human must necessarily make with the infinite, and the fourth an account of C. S. Lewis’s journey to faith. These four fit together; the first three stand together as a trilogy, for to understand both Pascal and his arguments all three should be studied, and the fourth offers a unique insight into the wager argument.
BLAISE PASCAL, REASONS OF THE HEART, by Marvin R. O'Connell. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997. 202 pages, index. Softcover.
Written by a Catholic theologian, the author spends little time on Pascal’s mathematical and scientific accomplishments, focusing instead on his Christian convictions. Raised a Christian, and already known by age 23 as a scientist/mathematician, Pascal underwent a mind change to “fervent Christianity” in early 1646. When Pascal's sister, Jacqueline, wrote a year later "my brother is no longer a mathematician," she meant by this that Pascal’s pursuit of the sciences no longer defined him; he now belonged to Jesus Christ, and in Him found his identity. In contrast to most of us in the 21st century, where “what we do for a living” is our usual way of self-identification, Pascal opted for the simple word “Christian.” Few of us, even priests and pastors, do that anymore.
Seven years later, on November 23-24, 1654, Pascal experienced a second conversion, an epiphany, a "night of FIRE." Much of O’Connell’s book centers on that experience, particularly Pascal's written account of it. What he wrote on that pivotal night in 1654 he later recopied on parchment, and both it and the parchment copy were found sewn inside his jacket when he died, eight years later. O'Connell writes, "The paper text -- written hurriedly, smudged, crowded with excisions and insertions, scarcely legible in places -- was composed first, composed indeed at the very moment of illumination . . . the words tumbled forth with a fiery intensity." Read them, and try to imagine Pascal’s feelings and thoughts as he was totally captured by his Lord. This was an invasion of grace, a manifestation of God. O’Connell includes the full text in his book; here is part of it:
The year of grace 1654.
Monday, 23 November …
From about half-past ten in the evening
to about half past midnight.
God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob.
Not of the philosophers and the scholars.
Certitude, certitude, Emotion, Joy, Peace.
God of Jesus Christ
Oblivion of the world and of everything except God.
Righteous father, the world has not known You,
But I have known You.
Joy, Joy, Joy, tears of joy,
Jesus Christ ___________
Jesus Christ ___________
This is the record of an experience most of us can only long for. I recommend O’Connell’s book highly. When you purchase a copy, you will, I believe, make it a "keeper" in your personal library.
Lives of great men and women inspire us. Pascal's life is both scientifically remarkable and spiritually uplifting. O’Connell’s biography looks at his life from the second of these, a view that Pascal, himself, would claim was primary. That he was almost entirely devoted to God no one can deny. It was in following his God in service, taking in a homeless family with smallpox, that he contracted his final illness and died at age 39, on August 19, 1662. One of his last accomplishments in the service of his Lord was the creation of the first urban public transportation company, so designed as to bring maximum benefits to the poor. He is best known, of course, for the Pensees, an “apologie” which he never finished. Begun shortly after his initial conversion in 1654, and first published in 1670, eight years after his death by his nephew, Etienne Perier, who worked from scattered, sometimes nearly undecipherable notes, it has become Pascal’s legacy, often imitated, never surpassed. Many have tried to expand upon it, to produce an “apologie” as close to what Pascal would actually have written as possible. One of these, PASCAL, by Jean Mesnard, written in 1965, is worth considering:
PASCAL, by Jean Mesnard, Translated by Claude and Marcia Abraham, University, Alabama: University of Alabama Press, 1969.150 pages, bibliography, Pensees references. Hardcover.
This volume is an “analytic reorganization of Pascal’s theological writings from which emerges the true meaning and intent of the “apologie” that Pascal planned to compose … .” (page 9 of the translator’s introduction). Along with O’Connell’s book, I recommend it to Metanexus readers.
One often reads the Pensees as disconnected thoughts, not as a whole. Mesnard has connected them with his own impressive, yet never intrusive, commentary, and thus presents them as a unified whole. Pascal had lectured from the notes in 1658, and one attendee at that lecture, M. Filleau de la Chaise, published an account of it in 1672. Mesnard has attempted to replicate that lecture.
The most challenging of all the Pensees is "le pari," the WAGER, elements of which appear throughout his work. Here is part of what Pascal actually wrote:
233. …Let us now speak according to natural lights. If there is a God, He is infinitely incomprehensible, …We are then incapable of knowing either what He is or if He is …Let us then examine this point, and say, "God is, or He is not." But to which side shall we incline? Reason can decide nothing here… A game is being played at the extremity of this infinite distance where heads or tails will turn up. What will you wager? According to reason, you can do neither the one thing nor the other; according to reason, you can defend neither of the propositions. …(But) you must wager. It is not optional… You have two things to lose, the true and the good; and two things to stake, your reason and your will, your knowledge and your happiness; and your nature has two things to shun, error and misery. Your reason is no more shocked in choosing one rather than the other, since you must of necessity choose.
…Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is... If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is. …there is here an infinity of an infinitely happy life to gain, a chance of gain against a finite number of chances of loss, and what you stake is finite. … (You say) "… I …am forced to wager, … and am so made that I cannot believe. What, then, would you have me do?" … at least learn your inability to believe, since reason brings you to this…. Endeavour, then, to convince yourself, not by increase of proofs of God, but by the abatement of your passions. … Learn of those who have been bound like you, and who now stake all their possessions. These are people who know the way which you would follow, and who are cured of an ill of which you would be cured. Follow the way by which they began; by acting as if they believed… .
242. … it is certain that those who have the living faith in their hearts see at once that all existence is none other than the work of the God whom they adore. But for those in whom this light is extinguished, … to tell them that they have only to look at the smallest things which surround them, and they will see God openly… and to claim to have concluded the proof with such an argument, is to give them ground for believing that the proofs of our religion are very weak. … nothing is more calculated to arouse their contempt…
267. The last proceeding of reason is to recognise that there is an infinity of things which are beyond it. …
277. The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know.
Many scholars, William James among them, have criticized the wager. In a recent internet (Google) search on the words “Pascal Wager,” nine of the first ten sites found were those of atheist organizations finding fault with it. But, in the words of O'Connell (page 188), "Pascal's retort was that the wager embodied a moral decision, not an intellectual demonstration or even an argument." And this leads me to the third book of the “trilogy:”
GAMBLING ON GOD, ESSAYS ON PASCAL’S WAGER, edited by Jeff Jordan, Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 1994. 168 pages, index, notes, bibliography. Hardcover.
O’Connell’s book is about spiritual things, and is devotionally edifying. The reader encounters in it Pascal, the human being, and how he worked out his relationship with the infinite. It is inspiring. In contrast, Mesnard’s book is an “intellectual search,” and Jordan’s book is neither of these, but entirely exercises in logic. In it, nine essayists explore the wager. John Ryan points out how, while Pascal formulated the wager in its most famous form, others before him, as early as Plato’s Socrates (in the Phaedo) had anticipated the argument. Ian Hacking writes on the wager’s logic, Richard Foley on pragmatic reasons for belief, and Thomas Morris on questions of evidence. Objections to the wager, including moral considerations, the many-gods argument, and others are addressed by Phillip Quinn, George Schlesinger and Jeff Jordan. It is a source to which one may return many times to pursue “le pari” as an intellectual problem.
Pascal’s mathematical and scientific accomplishments place him among the “greats” of secular history. His life and writings, particularly the Pensees, place him among those we hold with deep respect in the culture of Christianity. He and his ideas can be studied devotionally, apologetically or intellectually, all profitably. His wager can be taken seriously, by sincere seekers after the divine, or easily sidestepped in one or more ways found on atheist web sites. And that leads me to the fourth book in this set:
THE MOST RELUCTANT CONVERT, C. S. Lewis’s Journey to Faith, by David C. Downing. Downer’s Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2002. 191 pages, index, bibliography, notes. Hardcover.
“I believe in no religion.” Clive Staples Lewis, 1916, age 17.
“Christianity is God expressing himself … .” Clive Staples Lewis, 1931, age 32.
Born in 1931, I well could have made both statements at similar ages. I suspect I have read every published word Lewis ever wrote. In his book SURPRISED BY JOY, 1955, Lewis himself speaks of his conversion, and it was that book, among others, that played an important part in my own understanding and embrace of the Christian message. So it was with great expectations and anticipation that I began this volume.
The author, a professor of English at Elizabethtown College, has written many articles on Lewis, as well as a book, PLANETS IN PERIL, which studies Lewis’s famous Ransom trilogy. He looks at Lewis’s inner life, on the factors that influenced his spiritual journey, and on the issues that commanded the attention of his keen intellect along the way.
Lewis did not have an experience like that of Pascal, of course; those who have had one are fortunate. The rest of us must come to Christ gradually, an unfolding (dare I say “evolutionary?”) process. For Jack Lewis it was to take a fifteen-year quest, one that led him through strange pathways. Atheism in his youth turned to materialism, mind-matter dualism and the occult, then idealism and pantheism in the 1920s. In the summer of 1929, at age 30, Lewis had a “mystical experience” while riding on a bus (surely as prosaic a setting as one can conceive). In SURPRISED BY JOY, he describes his subsequent decision to “enter in” with these words: “In the Trinity term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.”
Lewis’s 1929 conversion experience was, however, to theism, not to Christianity. He began attending church worship services, and engaged in prayer, but only because he thought he ought to make some overt gesture toward his new philosophical position. Two years of his quest were to follow. David Downing describes these two years in chapter eight, and does so powerfully. Even knowing the result, I found myself caught up in the narrative, urging Lewis on, almost like watching a baseball game television replay. Two steps forward, one step back, and then, on September 28, 1931, while riding in his brother’s motorcycle sidecar to Whipsnade zoo, it happened. In Lewis’s own words, “I know very well when, but hardly how, the final step was taken. I was driven to Whipsnade one sunny morning. When we set out I did not believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and when we reached the zoo I did. “ This, too, was an epiphany, hardly a “Damascus Road” event, but a manifestation (breaking through) of God, none-the-less.
Downing’s book does not speak of “le pari” directly, but it is evident that Jack Lewis followed the wager’s advice with the heart of a sincere seeker. Blaise Pascal would approve.
To the sincere seeker after the divine I make three additional comments. First, the Pensees were never finished; Pascal died prematurely. He did not have the opportunity to write, and rewrite, “le pari” and it remains a fragment, one each person can accept or reject as useful. To criticize him because the wager is not completely thought out is cavalier.
Second, the critical event in Pascal’s life was surely the experience he had in 1654, two hours of knowing God as few others have been privileged. Surveys indicate that roughly 1/3 of Americans will testify to having had one or more epiphanies; I’m one of them. My conversion to Jesus Christ came about much like that of Jack Lewis. Following a quest of two years, it happened. I sat down on a sofa. When I sat down I was not a Christian. When I arose, I was. Each epiphany is different. An account of another one, much different than that of either Lewis or Pascal, may be found on my website at www.burgy.50megs.com.
Third, consider how God reaches a human being. The human cannot reach God by reason, he can only take reason as far as it will go, and recognize that reason has limits. But a human being CAN do one thing, he can convey to God, even a God he does not believe exists, that he is willing to believe. I think that’s all God ever requires, a willingness. The atheist calls it “Fake it till you make it,” but that phrase presupposes no God exists. My own conversion did not come because I was pretending to believe, for I did not do that. It did come when I was willing to believe, and it was God who made the contact. My claim is that this is the core of Pascal’s argument.
In the epilogue to Downing’s book, one more event is mentioned. In July 1963, Lewis, famous for his spiritual imagination, in a coma with what would be his last illness, awakened and asked for water. As his friend, Hooper, began to draw it, Suddenly sitting up, Lewis stared intently across the room. He kept looking, and then exclaimed, several times, “Oh, I never imagined. I never imagined.” With a rapturous expression on his face, he then fell asleep.
John W. Burgeson
Imago Dei, Denver, Colorado (About 2600 words)
Web site www.burgy.50megs.com
Part of this essay was published as a book review in PERSPECTIVES, the quarterly journal of the ASA, Volume 50, #1, March 1998. ASA's web site is